Friday, October 21, 2016

WHAT IS YOUR SIN TOLERANCE? GOD'S IS ZERO.

Noticing Human Failure


When you look at yourself, other people, or the world in general, how do you deal with the failure you observe? Do you get disappointed, depressed, impatient, frustrated, or even angry? What do you do with these reactions? Do you wish you could stop having them? Do you wish that the people would change so that your life wouldn't be so troubled? Have you ever tried to not care so that then you wouldn't feel so hurt?

Let's approach this situation from different angle. We have all failed morally, and more times than we notice.  Have you ever been surprised at your failure, wondering how you could possibly have done such a terrible thing, or done it again? Have you ever wished that you had tried harder so as to have avoided failure, or at least to have not failed so greatly? Have you ever found yourself surprised at the failures of others: your wife, your children, your friends, fellow saints, or even pastors? Why were you surprised?


God Notices Human Failure


God is never surprised at your moral failings or mine. It is good for us to always love Him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And it is never good to compromise those standards. God always loves perfectly. Since He is responsible to resolve all issues in the moral world, He notices every violation of perfect love. Perfect love doesn't pretend sin away, but rather deals with it in a righteous way--always--and sends it away. Read about the first failing of our first parents and see if you can notice any surprise, impatience, frustration, or anger on God's part. It isn't there. Adam and Eve sinned and hid in fear from God. But God didn't hesitate to draw close to them. He went to them and spoke to them like a kind father to bless them with words of a promise of hope, even while explaining the curse resulting from their sin. Have you ever wondered why God did not seem bothered by their sin? I suggest that it is because God's goodness is full of surprises and that this is the biggest surprise.


All Sin Converges at the Cross


All the sin committed from Adam to the cross was left unresolved by God in anticipation of the cross. God saw this from before the creation of the universe (1Peter 1:17-23) and desired to reveal His goodness in a glorious way. Read closely Paul's declaration in Romans 3:24-26 that God passed over ALL sin in order to reveal His righteousness at the proper time--at the cross. Notice that God both is righteous and makes righteous all who are persuaded that Christ's faithfulness is their only hope. David killing Goliath didn't reveal the seriousness of Goliath's mockery of God. The flood didn't reveal the seriousness of the world's sin. Sodom being consumed by fire from heaven didn't reveal the truth about their sin. Certainly these events hinted that sin was terrible, but only the cross reveals the seriousness of sin. The cross reveals that only the death of God Himself can overcome sin. Read Romans 1:32 in several translations and notice that God has written into the conscience of every person that every sin deserves death. Paul declared earlier in the chapter (verse 18) that we humans suppress that knowledge. Today we live in the light of the cross, looking to Christ as the one who 1) in His death and resurrection is our freedom, peace, and satisfaction in a broken world, and 2) in His future coming to bring physical recreation and make public to all His good judgment--that goodness is a seamless whole, that violation of it deserves death, that He gladly took the death all people deserve, that He offered as a gift life in goodness free from the pressure of personal performance, and that those who rejected His goodness will receive the full weight of His good judgment on their self-righteousness.

God is not Surprised at Human Failure


Notice the theme in the following three passages from Isaiah. "Lord, you will establish peace for us, since you have also performed for us all our work." -26:12 "The Lord is well-pleased for His righteousness' sake; He will exalt the law and make it glorious." -42:21 "By his knowledge my righteous servant will make many righteous, for he will bear away their transgressions." -53:11 Here it is again 100 years later in Jeremiah 31:14: "'I will fill the soul of the priests with abundance, and My people will be satisfied with My goodness,' declares the Lord." God is not surprised at human failure because He delights to be the provider of all we need. He has made His goodness to be our satisfaction. If God thinks this way how could He possibly be disappointed or surprised by human failure?
  

Your Surprise at Human Failure


Your surprise at human moral failing results from only one thing: not viewing the world in a good way--through perfect love--through the goodness of God being the satisfaction for His people. If you are a Christian, then God has declared for all time that His goodness is your satisfaction. Do you see how all encompassing that is? When you fail and get upset at your failure, you have two problems. When you see a fellow saint fail and you get upset about it, you simply have more of those same two problems. If you see a non-Christian fail and you get upset about it, you have those same two problems nuanced from a different angle. Here are the two problems.

Both problems are related to forgetfulness. First, God is not a God of second chances. Rather, He is the God of one chance and a new creation. If you had a zero tolerance for sin like God does, and you never forgot this principle, then you would never get upset with anyone who sins, no matter how great the violation. You may wonder at this point, "Then why is God's anger mentioned so often in the Old Testament?"  I plan to write on this topic, but for now would suggest two teaser questions.  In my observation the first mention of God's anger or wrath is toward Moses at the burning bush--2500+ years after Adam. I suggest that there is a surprise in the larger context that helps answer the first question: Why was God angry at Moses? I suggest that there is one event during Moses lifetime that precipitates the regular expression of God's anger that continues all the way through Jesus' preaching. What is that event? Notice the expressions of anger and work backwards in context to the point at which they disappear. 

Back to forgetfulness. it is a big deal--far bigger that we tend to think. Again, if you are a Christian, then God's goodness is your satisfaction. The only reason that you would not have an active experience of this satisfaction is because of your forgetfulness. You entered into the beauty of that satisfaction at conversion and have been called to grow in the understanding of it and remembrance of it. When you observe sin in self or others, the pressure is on to forget or get distracted from that true satisfaction. Certainly it is wrong for any person to do evil. But there is no satisfaction from God's view in a person stopping or not doing a specific evil action. The alternative to doing one evil action isn't doing that one thing right, rather it is doing all things right--perfectly right. Learning and remembering this is the spiritual battle. You get upset at sin because you forget that God has a zero tolerance for sin, and you forget that the goodness of God is your satisfaction, the satisfaction of all other saints, and the only hope for satisfaction for all non-Christians. The world preaches a counterfeit satisfaction, but God never honors that pretense. 


The Surprise of Grace


What is the opposite of grace? Is it some form of unkindness, meanness, or harshness? I suggest that the surprising and simple opposite of grace is law. The world sees grace as some form of niceness, kindness, or a second chance to be a better person. But heaven sees grace as total freedom from law--the obligation to do what is right. Even more surprising is the realization that to live in grace does not mean living free from performance, but rather living in the performance of Christ free from the pressure of personal performance. Living in grace is not living in a vacuum of no performance. That would be like buying a pet fish and laying it on the counter. A person rather puts the fish in a fish bowl full of water. A Christian is designed to swim and thrive in the performance of Christ. The performance of Christ is simultaneously a zero tolerance for sin and a full satisfaction in the goodness of God. Therefore, while you are mindful that you live in the performance of Christ, out of you flows a zero tolerance for sin and full satisfaction in the goodness of God--no matter how much people around fail. Mindfulness is the issue. When your mind is in the right place then your behavior and attitude will be in the right place. Practice setting your mind in the right place--on the performance of Christ in both of its aspects--and realize that your temptation is always to be distracted from that vision, and you might find yourself enjoying other people while they fail--even while they are mistreating you.   

Zero tolerance for sin and full satisfaction in the goodness of God. If we Christians embraced God's vision we might just be the happiest people on the planet.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

HYPOCRISY IS A BAD CHOICE



Discussion of Hypocrisy Builds Relationships


Hypocrisy is a common and humorous topic of conversation with students who stop by to talk or listen at the free book at USU. Our white board sayings seek to stir conversations and get people to laugh at themselves and think more deeply about life. Hypocrisy is a common criticism expressed to me about religious people or churches. It isn't the biggest complaint. Far and away the most common criticism I hear is judgmentalism. Both are hot topics and both easily and naturally lead into conversation of law and gospel. 

Students are generally very aware that hypocrisy is a bad thing and that it is a big problem in other people. We have an intuitive sense that it is bad, but in not thinking carefully about what causes it, we are rather insensitive to it in ourselves. When is the last time you thought or said something like, "Whoa, that was rather hypocritical of me."? Likely you have thought or said this about someone else, why not about yourself? Truth is truth, isn't it? This is common human experience and a good point for us Christians to identify with others and learn to laugh together at ourselves for our prideful reactions. Is it possible to escape these reactions? Does one even want to escape? The way of escape surprises those I discuss it with.


What is Hypocrisy?


What exactly is hypocrisy? It isn't simply doing something wrong. A person can do all sorts of evil and not be a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is not a way of acting but rather a way of thinking. When I think of myself as a failure, hypocrisy isn't in the picture. But when I think that I am succeeding at doing what is good--what ever that means--then I open myself up to the possibility of being a hypocrite. Have I actually done what is good or have I lowered the standard so as to honor my performance and protect my reputation? In 1978 when in college, a Christian shared the gospel clearly with me. He told me that forgiveness was a free gift paid for by the death of Jesus. I revolted at the idea of forgiveness as a gift. I, an agnostic, told him in no uncertain terms that a person had to be good to get forgiveness, and "if I wasn't good enough then the line behind me was really long." I had been trusting that if there was a god, then I had succeeded at being good enough to merit his forgiveness. How did I know that I was good enough? My pride kept me from hearing my conscience and made me oblivious to my hypocrisy. My self-deception was multifaceted that day. Likely you recognize several aspects of it.

The word hypocrisy comes from the world of Greek theater and means play acting. This is fitting but ironic since in theater, play actors know that they are pretending to be something they are not, while in real life a hypocrite has fooled himself--and often only himself--into thinking that he is something he is not. We all know that we should be and do what is morally good. A hypocrite thinks he is succeeding when he isn't. The only reason he could possibly think he is succeeding is by deceiving himself--maybe with the help of others--into cheapening the standards of his conscience and of truth.  

Practical Conversation


In the last 20 years I have asked thousands of people, "Are you a good person?" Nearly all have said yes and many have expressed being confident of their answer. Such confidence is an open door to conversation. I generally follow up by casually asking how they have come to their conclusion. Nearly always people have calmly said that they simply compared themselves to other people. One woman said that she was good compared to everyone else. At this point I generally dryly ask what would happen if they were to compare themselves to Jesus. Suddenly people stop smiling and sheepishly declare that they would not be good. I have no memory of ever comparing myself to Jesus before that fateful conversation in 1978. When I have asked these people if they had ever previously compared themselves to Jesus, all or nearly all have said that they had never done so. Hmm... 

I was surprised a week ago when an agnostic, former-Mormon, student friend stopped by the free book table, read the whiteboard pictured above, and said that in the Mormon Missionary handbook, Preach My Gospel, is a statement that one should always compare oneself to Jesus and not to other people because the latter leads to competition. This seemed odd as I had no memory of a Mormon missionary, an active Mormon, or any other Mormon ever mentioning this except in response to my question. But this week two returned missionaries affirmed what this friend said when I asked about it. Why don't they follow their own handbook or volunteer this information? 

Lately I have intensified discussion at this point by asking people if they have ever been looked down on by others. All have said they have and then added that such wasn't good and they didn't like it. The conversations really open at this point about hypocrisy as I ask them how it is that they don't like others doing it to them but they freely do it to others. They say that it doesn't bother them to do it to others because it helps them feel good about themselves. They seem surprised by this contradiction and by having not noticed it before. I often ask if they like being hypocritical, suggest that it isn't difficult to escape hypocrisy, and quote my agnostic philosophy student friend who said, "If you judge by perfection it is impossible to be a hypocrite." This simple insight surprises people and they freely admit that by that standard everyone is a failure--we are are equal. I suggest to them that Jesus came to show us what perfect love looks like, that we should always compare ourselves and everyone else to Him, and that doing so will keep us from being prideful, hypocritical, or judgmental.  No one has fought when I have encouraged them to think this way. A few atheists who said that they didn't believe in Jesus, did agree that they should compare themselves to the voice of their own conscience which tells them to always do good. This has achieved the same end.

This is a wonderful lead in to the gospel of our compassionate creator God coming into a broken world marked of pride, hypocrisy, and judgmentalism, to honor goodness and die the death that all people deserve, to provide reconciliation, in order to call all people out of the darkness of self-righteousness under the condemnation of God's goodness and into the light and celebration of the gift of righteousness--a new identity in grace, free to love motivated by a vision of perfect love received, free from the pressure and pollution of obligation.

Freedom From Hypocrisy Heals Community


To reveal the practical value of judging by perfection I often inject into the above conversation what a North African Muslim student told me, "If all Muslims judged by perfection all wars would stop immediately because all would realize that they all are failures together in the same boat. And this would be true for other people also." The implications of this should be obvious. A community free from competition and pride, free from seeking to find hope in personal performance, free to see perfection as the only good way of life, free to love and bless as much as desired without the pressure of manageable standards--such a community would be beautiful to watch grow and mature. 

The above agnostic philosophy student, who is from a Mormon background, said to me on another occasion something like, "Mormons think that they are a light on a hill. They seek to keep their standards, preach their standards, and invite others to join them. And they are all a bunch of hypocrites." I agreed and suggested that such was true of most other religious people, too. He smiled in surprise. I then asked him what would happen if a group of religious people thought they were a light on a hill and preached perfection as the only standard. He said that they couldn't possibly be hypocrites, but would have to find another way to live because they couldn't live by that standard. The Christian with me then explained to this friend how grace is that way of life. Christian grace is not about living free from performance. The beautiful surprise is that grace means living in the performance of Christ every second every day--free from the pressure of my own performance.


The Choice That Excludes Hypocrisy

  
All people live life moment by moment with a mind set either on perfection or some manageable set of performance standards. God calls all people to honor His perfection by resting in Christ's finished work as the necessary and sufficient thing to fulfill all goodness. The first time a person does this is called conversion. Life doesn't end at this point, but actually just begins as the person is now alive from the dead morally (spiritually). God calls every saint to maintain that same mindset every moment every day in interaction with every person--while changing a diaper, watching a sporting event, eating breakfast, changing a tire, singing at church, or helping the poor. It is not a special thing to do in life but a way to thinking while doing all things--one moment at a time. 

As you read the Bible notice how often it calls the reader to completeness, fullness or perfection (ex: Deuteronomy 4:1-10, 6:25, 8:1; Matthew 5:48, 7:12, 22:40; Col. 1:9-12, 3:8, 4:5-6; James 1: 25, 2:10) "Therefore, preparing your minds for action, keeping sober, fix you hope COMPLETELY on the grace brought to you in the revelation of Jesus Christ...but like the One who called you is holy, be holy in ALL your conduct." -1Peter 1:13,15  This language of completeness is either an exaggeration or a real expectation on God's part. I am persuaded that God means perfection and that it is rationally impossible to obey this by focusing on behavior. Is it really possible for me to notice all aspects of my behavior simultaneously, or to think that I am noticing them honestly? But it is possible and simple to set my mind right now on perfection as the standard. One friend said recently that when the mind is in the right place then the behavior is in the right place. Could it really be this simple: that behavior flows out of mindset? It is important to realize that this contrast is not between wanting to do what is right versus wanting to do what is wrong. The contrast is between thinking that perfection is required versus thinking that some level of imperfect or manageable obedience is satisfactory.

God calls you right now to make the choice that excludes hypocrisy. While you are obeying that call, hypocrisy is excluded from your life. The apostle Peter declares that hypocrisy was excluded in conversion and that a person should keep it excluded while growing as a Christian.  "Therefore having put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes crave the pure milk of the word that you may grow in respect to salvation." -1Peter 2:1-2 The apostle calls us to grow in grace by craving the pure (without deceit, unadulterated) milk of the word. I am persuaded that the pure word is adulterated by the addition of manageable standards. Let's heed the call to see ourselves and all others through the eyes of perfect love in the present moment. When we lose focus the call is simply to look again to Him who is perfect love and has freed us to love with all His energy.

Therefore hypocrisy is always the fruit of a bad choice--the choice to mentally dishonor perfect love by cheapening standards to some form of manageability. Since a mind set on perfection (perfect love, perfect law) excludes hypocrisy automatically, how could it be otherwise?

Which will you choose?

Friday, August 19, 2016

A LIE ABOUT GRACE: SIN DOESN'T MATTER ANYMORE

The Lie: Grace Means That Sin Doesn't Matter Anymore

Have you ever heard the accusation something like, "So you are telling me that because of grace sin doesn't matter anymore?" I hear this commonly when witnessing in my openly religious culture. What is interesting is that I have heard it many times from true Christians. Why would a Christian say this? I suggest that Satan is very real and continually slanders God's character and seeks to get people (like me) to swallow that slander. Once I swallow it I become confused and then can easily speak that confusion about God to others. I suggest that we Christians do this far more than we admit. The above lie is really just the fruit of a much bigger lie. That lie concerns the meaning of the word grace. God is full of grace. My religious culture declares this but then quickly adds two things: 1) but you can't just do what you want, and 2) it is important to realize that God doesn't require perfection now. What is meant by these two limitations on grace is that God's grace doesn't really free a person from the authority of the law [the obligation to keep it], and that God is lenient and the giver of many chances for a person to become a law keeper by personal righteousness. This attitude surrounds me.

The Foundational Lie: Grace Equals Leniency

Leniency is the lowering of standards. It keeps the possibility of success still within reach. Expectations remain manageable and control remains in human hands. Motivation to do good retains a significant aspect of pressure to perform--the obligation of some form of law. And some kind of judgment still hangs in the air in case of failure--even just the possibility that God will be displeased with you as a person. My jail bird friends never want grace from the judge; they want leniency. They don't want the judge to be fully honest about their failings and what their failings deserve. They want the judge to cut them some slack, to lessen the seriousness of their wrongs, and minimize their punishment--five months probation instead of five years in prison. They don't really like probation--probation isn't freedom--but do prefer it to prison. Satan and human religion both preach leniency. They hate true grace and so counterfeit it with leniency which results in manageability. So what is true grace?

The Foundational Truth: Grace Always Honors Perfect Love

God is love. To declare this doesn't mean that God compromises His standards of perfect love in order to honor the prideful human desire to find hope in human performance. God is perfect love and "is well pleased for righteousness sake to exalt the law and make it glorious." (Isaiah 42:21) God thinks in terms of goodness, which includes perfect law and perfect love. He can compromise neither. Earthly judges may but God cannot. He always thinks and acts in a way that honors the perfection of both law and love. To compromise perfect love is not grace but rather leniency. In the Old Testament this is called idolatry and spiritual prostitution. God is not an idol. He is not a prostitute. From the beginning people have perverted their understanding of God's goodness and sought to relate to Him as if He were an idol or a spiritual prostitute. They sought to manage their relationship with Him by cheapening standards. Freedom with God comes with seeing perfect love clearly. This includes seeing that both grace and sin are unmanageable and out of our control.

Honesty About Grace

Grace always says several things. First, that only perfect love counts with God. Second, that sin is so serious that no human can manage it. Third, that Jesus is the only good sin manager and He managed it fully at the cross. And fourth, that a vision of perfect love is a more than sufficient motivation to good works. I suggest that if you are seeing grace as a relationship of total freedom from merit because of the merit of Christ, then you will also speak these things. Since Jesus declared that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, we can trust that what comes out of you or me flows from the set of our heart in the moment. Sinful words or behavior as well as words of leniency overflow from a heart distracted from true grace.

Grace in Practice: an Example

Let's say that you sin against me and that I notice it. Let's now add to the mix that in the moment you mistreat me I happen to be meditating on grace as explained above. It is also important to assume that in that moment I don't get distracted from grace by the voice of the world (James 1:14, 25). What will be my reaction when my mind is on true grace? I suggest that my reaction will be quick and multi-faceted. I will notice your specific failure and that you didn't love perfectly. I will notice it with compassion rather than self-protectiveness, being aware that I am also a failure who doesn't love perfectly. I will be at peace realizing that Christ took care of your sin fully at the cross. In not having a plank in my eye (Matthew 7:1ff), I will be able to see clearly to help you with the speck in your eye. I will know that the speck is forgetfulness of perfect love (required and given freely by Christ). Any words that I speak will gently point you back to perfect love revealed in the finished work of Christ. You may embrace those words or resist them. My role is to see you as a brother and not lose focus myself, remembering together grace, with the goal of restoring your vision--as long as it takes. Restoration to a vision of grace (perfect love and perfect law revealed in the finished work of Christ) will bear the fruit of the Spirit and free flowing admissions of failure.

Seeing Past a False Impression of Grace

Sometimes a Christian can give the impression that since grace is true sin doesn't matter anymore. But this is a false impression. Here is the cause. The world is all about being the sin manager for self and all others. Some people are simply more lenient than others at their scorekeeping and don't appear to be keeping score, but they are. A vision of perfect love takes the scorecard out of human hands. For some saints it is a huge relief--a real burden lifted--to be free from being the sin manager of self and others. Sometimes their expressions of grace flows from that sense of relief and they want to communicate that sense of relief not realizing that their words can be misunderstood by hearers who don't yet appreciate that grace includes the idea that nothing less that perfect love is acceptable to God. Such a hearer can get the false impression that the person is saying that sin is no big deal, all the while the speaker is actually thinking 1) that sin is such a big deal that only Christ can handle it, 2) that He handled it completely at the cross and doesn't need our help, 3) that only perfect obedience counts with God, and 4) it is wonderful freedom to not need to pressure self and others to try to stop sinning. The speaker may also be thinking that sin is caused by being distracted from grace. The speaker is feeling such relief at number 4 that that may be all that is mentioned. The speaker has rightly maximized sin, but the hearer may judge wrongly that the speaker is minimizing sin--being lenient. In drawing this conclusion the hearer is being lenient himself, because if he had maximized sin by thinking perfect love, he would have realized the first 3 points and gladly requested clarification rather than jumping to conclusions. We all speak unclearly at times. Let's give others the benefit of the doubt and learn to ask clarifying questions.

Responsibility to Communicate Grace Clearly

Grace is glorious and powerfully motivational. The adversary is real and actively seeking to confuse and obfuscate the message of perfect love. We Christians need to take our responsibility as God ambassadors of reconciliation seriously and learn to express the nuances of grace for the benefit of our hearers. They can't hear our thoughts, but only our words. Communication of grace is a spiritual battle very unlike a chemistry lecture. In realizing this, I plan to be alert to seek to always preface my explanations of grace with some form of the following words to reduce potential conflict and the slide into leniency.

Grace always declares that sin matters uncompromisingly to God, that He has a zero tolerance for sin, that only perfect love counts with Him, and therefore total freedom from the pressure of merit is the only good way to have a relationship with God. This freedom was bought by the finished work of Christ.


Monday, July 18, 2016

SIN NO MORE: THE SURPRISING PROMISE OF MERITED FORGIVENESS

The Context 


The Gospel of John opens with a prologue that teases at what John is going to reveal about the ministry of Jesus. That prologue hints at some big surprises, one of which is the declaration in verse 17, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." This reveals a clear contrast between Moses and Christ--Moses was a law giver but Christ a grace giver. If you read the Gospel of John closely looking for commands by Jesus, you will notice that only a very few--maybe just three--sound like Moses giving law. But why those three if Jesus is no law giver at all as Martin Luther declared boldly in his commentary on Galatians 2:20? How could there be even one if Jesus is truly not a law giver? Two of those three bothered me for 30+ years as I sought vainly to understand what Jesus meant by His words. These two are Jesus' identical words to the man He had earlier healed by the pool of Siloam (John 5) and to the woman caught in adultery (John 8).

Those two people were marginalized by their society. The man had lain in his sickness unable to walk for 38 years. The woman had been caught in adultery. They likely hadn't participated much in religious life at the temple. They were clearly not part of the religious establishment which Jesus was in continuous conflict with as portrayed by John. Jesus often criticized that establishment for compromising the perfection of the law. Let's keep that in mind as we untangle the story about the man.


The Man at the Pool of Siloam



As Jesus passed by the Pool of Siloam, he saw the man lying there and asked if he desired to be healed. What an obvious question! Of course the man wanted to be healed. He wanted it so much that all he could do was to pour out to Jesus his frustration about what he saw to be the real problem. His great longing for healing had always been thwarted by a lack of help. No one had ever been available to help him into the pool when the time of healing had arrived. Another person had always gotten the healing before he could grab it. Did Jesus criticize him for his lack of joy at the healing of others? No. Jesus simply pointed him away from his traditional hope of healing in the pool and toward Jesus' own authority to heal. He commanded the man to get up, pick up his mat, and walk. The man was immediately healed and obeyed Jesus fully. The religious leaders saw the man and pointed him to their version of the law, telling him that to carry his mat on the Sabbath was against the law. He replied simply that the man who had healed him had told him both to walk and to carry his mat. 

But later in that day, Jesus found the man in the temple area, commanded him to pay attention to his physical healing, and gave the Moses-like command, "sin no more, lest something worse happen to you." Why did Jesus command that? In the Greek there is no wiggle room, as I could find no textual variant to explain it away. Since the phrase is in the imperative form and singular tense, it implies that Jesus really did command this one man to sin no more; it wasn't just a suggestion and it wasn't stated to the onlookers. What do we do with that? Check a commentary. Don't be surprised to read that the man's illness was caused by a specific sin, and that Jesus was informing the man that God was very serious about the man stopping that one sin. If the man didn't stop that one sin then God would bring a worse circumstance into his life to get him to take that sin seriously. If the standard of not sinning is perfection in thought, word, and deed, then how could Jesus have really tied the man's freedom from judgment to his perfection on one point of stopping sin? In my Mormon culture such commands are freely and frequently given with the purpose to get the hearer to try harder to do what is right and not sin. Perfection is never the expectation. Trying, not doing, is the standard. Does God really judge by the standard of trying as my religious culture teaches? Also, Jesus and James seem to give little room for performance with God to be isolated into individual topics. "He who keeps the whole law and stumbles in one point is guilty of all." -James 2:10


Discovering My Biases


Some commentators indicate that Jesus was telling the man that there was something far worse than his serious physical illness had ever been, and that that worse thing was to be cast out by God on judgment day. Certainly it is true that hell is worse than any physical suffering. And certainly it is true that the healed man should attend to that matter. If this view is true how does it connect to the text? It is rather easy to read general truth into any text. It is also easy to look back in time and criticize others for not seeing what we see, not realizing that we all are at least somewhat a product of our culture. Sometimes such criticism is valid, but I suggest that sometimes it prideful. In the last several years I have been realizing more and more how faulty and biased my own reading of the Bible has been as a result of not noticing significant aspects of context or my cultural bias. My mind is riddled with faulty thinking and I wish to remedy that situation as much as possible with honesty, rapidity, and help from all others. I am now in an intense process of discovery seeking to notice and untangle my own false biases. 

If Jesus knew exactly what He was talking about--and I suggest that He always knew exactly what He was talking about, was never confused, always chose His words carefully, and that the Spirit and apostles communicated them all clearly--then Jesus was communicating something for the man to understand. What in the context helps us discover Jesus' intended meaning? Probably all readers would agree that this is a true story of Jesus speaking to a real man. That man certainly neither spoke English nor was Chinese in culture. We all would agree with this, and so why do I mentions such trivialities? Until recently I unwittingly had been reading this story, and likely many others, in a way that gave insufficient value to context and was in some fashion blaming God for not communicating clearly. The difference is that now I realize that my lack of clarity is all my fault and so am scouring context for clues to get past my confusion. In this story my lack of context is revealed by something that bothered me for years. I wondered that since it is undeniable that the man had already sinned in his life before meeting Jesus, and if he obeyed Jesus and never sinned again, he would still have to deal with his past sins. Jesus' words seemed to me to imply that the man's past sins would be overlooked if he stopped sinning. I had zero confidence the man could do what Jesus commanded, but if he had been able to succeed, how could his past sins be overlooked? Do you see my confusion? Do you see what I missed?

The Promise Embedded in The Context

My problem is sometimes a lack of seeing a single point clearly, but more commonly I would guess that now my problem is primarily that I have unwittingly connected the dots in an artificial way, different from the author's intent, and thus am hindered in my understanding. I need to erase my connections and look for the connections that the context makes. Here are some simple points (dots) of context. Notice your own connections. Jesus healed the sick man in Jerusalem. It seems safe to assume that the man was Jewish. This healing took place before the crucifixion and therefore this Jewish man was under the Old Covenant and not under the New Covenant. This means that the man was not living under the covenant of grace but rather under the covenant of law with its promises of blessing based on obedience to law and cursing based on disobedience to the law. How do you think the man was doing in his obedience so far in life? I suggest that one of my big errors was to read the words of Jesus as if they applied equally in all time and were not rooted in the context of Israel under law and in anticipation of the death of the Messiah that would soon free Israel from law by giving Israel a new covenant of grace at Pentecost. This all was still in the future at the time of this healing. Jesus hadn't died yet, and in the Gospel of John Jesus doesn't speak of His death until chapter six (See Matthew 16:21, Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22). If Jesus hadn't yet mentioned his coming death, what was He expecting the man to trust as he sought to stop sinning?

A significant point in my lack of understanding context related to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A shepherd's job is to watch over the sheep and lead them to fresh pastures. But what is that image meant to tell us about Jesus? Jesus was sent by God to be the Good Shepherd. He said that He was sent exclusively to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24). He came to the lost sheep of Israel who were grazing in the field of the Old Covenant. They were well contented with that pasture and its religious system of obedience to law and religious duties as the way to be right with God. The temple worship was elaborate and was the center of that confidence. He came to His own to win their trust. His desire was that once He had won their trust, He would lead them from the old pasture to a fresh pasture of the New Covenant--leading them from law to grace. When He arrived the crowds thronged to Him as He healed their sick and cast out demons, and as He taught about the goodness of the law in its true honor in perfection. The leaders refused from the beginning to believe in Him, and murderous thoughts took root in their hearts. But the crowds grew and grew. And He even persuaded many of the leaders to join the crowd of His followers, at least secretly. Then one day He surprised everyone and began to speak about both His death at the hands of the leaders and of that death somehow being a source of life for those who followed Him. The beloved teacher suddenly lost His hearing. Peter rebuked Him. The crowds left Him. People still flocked to Him for healing and compassion, but they fell away from believing Him because his new message of His death for sinners was distasteful. Likely they wondered: "Why would He talk like that as the temple was the right way to deal with sin?" Jesus sought to break their confidence in their religious system of righteousness based on law keeping, but they resisted with all their might. So Jesus went alone to the new pasture--though He wasn't really alone for the Father was with Him (John 16:32), leading His lamb to the place of sacrifice.


Merited Forgiveness


After clearing my head a little in the Good Shepherd image and the related parable of the soils, I was vainly pondering one day the story of the man at the pool, when a question came to mind. Could these images help resolve the meaning of the command to sin no more? I turned to meditation on Jesus seeking to break the Jews' self-righteous pride so as to lead them from the law to grace, and wondered if a connection might be found in the Old Testament to Jesus' words. It wasn't long before the confusing words of Ezekiel 18 came to mind, as they were similar and familiar. That passage had not made sense to me because I thought it basically declared that any unrighteous person who stops sinning would be forgiven for all past sins. Again, this puzzled me. How can a person's past sins be forgiven just because that person stops sinning? Suddenly I realized that it said that an unrighteous Israelite who stopped sinning had the promise of complete forgiveness. This wasn't a promise to everyone, but rather only to Israelites under law. Suddenly it made sense. For six centuries the Israelites had pretended that they were lawkeepers and so when Ezekiel gave this new promise, the Israelites complained and declared that God's way was not right. I suggest that they were thinking like my Mormon culture which rejects the idea of perfect obedience and says that trying is what God should find acceptable. Read the chapter closely. 

Why did Ezekiel give this promise? In Deuteronomy 5:22-29 is the record of the Israelites at Mount Sinai begging Moses to go to up to God and bring down a list of God's demands. They told Moses to give God their promise that they would hear and do all He required. They wanted this arrangement of law so as to not be destroyed by God's judgment. They sought to flee into merited favor to protect themselves from God's judgment. Bad move. Read the history of Israel before Mount Sinai and notice that it seems that Israel had a relationship with God free from law, where their repeated complaints against God and Moses never resulted in criticism, anger, or judgment from God. Only after they begged for law did judgment fall when they complained or disobeyed. Check it out. I was skeptical when I first heard this and checked it out to disprove it, but couldn't. The Old Testament is the record of 1) Israel pretending that they were keeping the law and 2) God sending the prophets to tell them that they weren't. They hated the prophets' message and killed them. They did admit their ancestors were lawbreakers but wouldn't admit their own lawbreaking. Pride blinded them. God had compassion on them and wanted them to realize that only perfect love is good and that they should honor that standard. Ezekiel's promise clarified Moses' words in Deuteronomy 8:1-3 that life could come by law--clarifying that perfect obedience was the key. This revealed that Israel hated perfect love.


The Surprise


For many centuries the leaders of Israel--the false shepherds--had adulterated the law teaching it in various manageable forms. Jesus was born under law and grew up to be the all-time master teacher of the Mosaic Law. He came not to deny the law but to establish the full honor of it as a reflection of God's character. He did this not only by dying the death all sinners deserve, but also by speaking about it in an honorable way--in its wholeness and perfection. The law was designed to drive every Israelite to a vision of ruin and helplessness before God, exemplified in Isaiah's experience in Isaiah 6.  The leaders of Israel--the false shepherds--had stolen God's honor from the people. They became optimistic about their lawkeeping rather than pessimistic with a sense of spiritual ruin. It was Jesus' delight to restore God's honor, to let the perfection of the law do its work in the heart, that He might welcome them into the celebration of God's delight in goodness, truth, righteousness, and perfect love. God called Ezekiel the son of man 91 times and restrained Ezekiel from speaking anything but His words to the people. But the true Son of Man needed no restraint as His heart was full of the pleasure of the Father. He overflowed with compassion toward the lost sheep of Israel with healing and feeding. 

But His real passion was to win the hearts of the people back to the Father, back to perfect love as a true reflection of God, as perfect love as the only good way to see and live life. And so He spoke to the healed man the promise of Ezekiel that to be righteous before God and not accountable for past sins, an Israelite must stop all sins.

What did Jesus expect the man's response to be? If the man took Jesus at His word, he would have had to change his mind, to resist the cultural pressure to manageable standards of law, and embrace that only perfect obedience would please God. Such a thought would have brought him to his knees seeing himself as a spiritual beggar--spiritually ruined--and would have prepared him for Isaiah's experience. I suggest that Jesus spoke with a smile His words--the command of the law--to the healed man, "Go and sin no more lest something worse happen to you." I commonly say similar things with a smile to Mormons. When they catch that I really mean that God requires flawless perfection, they stop smiling and cry out something like, "If you really have to be perfect then you might as well give up." I then smile big and tell them that that is the point--that the door into a right relationship with God is perfect love--either you do it all or Jesus does it all for you and you rest in His finished work.

This is the message that I suggest Jesus meant for the healed Israelite man to get--the surprise of spiritual ruin through the mindset that only perfect obedience counts with God and that God Himself will provide a lamb. Glad welcome with God results from such a realization. 

There is application in this beautiful story, but we need to read it as if we are looking in a window into a world before Jesus' first mention of His coming death--into the world of Israel under law.

Friday, July 15, 2016

WHO IS YOUR SIN MANAGER?

God has a zero tolerance for sin. Every nuance of every violation of perfect love is seen by Him. If He turns a blind eye to it and has no reaction against it then He is not good. What is His reaction? "He passed over all sin to demonstrate His righteousness at the cross." (Romans 3:25f) This applies to Goliath, who mocked God and was killed by David, and to the people of Israel who died by snake bite for complaining against God. This verse reveals that the physical judgments on these people didn't really show how serious God was about sin. And this applies to all your sins and to all the sins of all those who mistreat you.

From the positive side we can say that God is perfect love and thus loves perfectly. He also requires continuous perfect love of all people, because that is what is good. How do you think I am doing? How are you doing? How are those who rub you the wrong way doing? We try to manager our own and each other's sins by the pressure of correction, criticism, reminders of failure, threats of various kinds, expressed displeasure, and more. Isn't improvement what we long to see? What does God desire to see? Perfect love.

I suggest that seeking to be my own sin manager results in self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and judgmentalism. And do you really appreciate me acting like I am your sin manager? If not then why do you seek to be the sin manager for others? The way of freedom is not to pretend to not notice sin, but rather to point self and all others to what what God sees: perfect love required and offered as a gift in Christ. Wouldn't it be a relief when you fail to have a friend to remind you of what Christ did for you on the cross? Then you could freely admit failure without a sense of condemnation.

I also suggest that the first step in helping others deal honestly with their failures is to admit that what we really want is for them to stop bothering us. A good second step might be a prayer of thankfulness that Jesus at the cross manages all sin and that it is a done deal for that person. Then the third step will naturally follow: to gladly point the other person to the finished work of Christ and the standard of perfect love. It might surprise us how quickly others will admit failure and the need to change in light of gazing upon their identity in perfect love.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

THE KEY TO EVERYTHING by Norman Grub

A Book Recommendation


"Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it." 
-George Bernard Shaw, atheist British playwright

The world and the devil seek to persuade us that Christianity is all about activity--being a good person by keeping the rules of life and by enforcing those rules on other people. When we buy that lie we bear ugly fruit, as indicated by the sarcasm of the famous atheist above. But Christianity is the life of God coming down from heaven and manifesting itself in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.  That life then was poured out into this world at Pentecost, filling God's people who had embraced the way of unmerited favor. Once in the way, we Christians can easily get distracted from the simplicity that is in Christ (2Cor 11:3). Christianity is simply the life of Christ overflowing from saints (those in Christ) as they fix their vision on Christ, the source of perfect love. This overflow creates community--a beautiful community of the love (righteousness and compassion) of Christ. 

The Key to Everything by Norman Grubb, is about this topic and points out hindrances to recognize. We are all born gripped with the conceit of self and need to learn to see past that conceit to Christ our life.  I read this short, simple, and practical book twenty years ago to my great blessing and then gave away 100+ copies. In re-reading it recently I found the blessing to be even more invigorating and refreshing than I had remembered it to be the first time. Here is one excerpt.

"Once you have seen that [Christ in you as your inspiration], you see that He is the illimitable One.
Then you relax and say, 'That is what life is: Another living His life in me.'
You've got the key to everything.
Every problem becomes an opportunity.
Every tough spot becomes a chance to enjoy the luxury of seeing Him deliver us out of it.
And you welcome such spots." pp. 31-32 in 1999 edition

Do you want to get to the place where this excerpt describes your experience? Your relatives, friends, and co-workers certainly would be blessed if you did. Why not read this book, take some simple steps forward, and bless those around you? It can't hurt anything except your pride.
The book retails for $4.99 or can be read online here: 
http://www.unionlife.org/KeyToEverything.htm

Thursday, June 2, 2016

LET'S TALK HONESTLY ABOUT THE LAW

The Law is Good


The law is good. It is very important to make clear that the moral law written on the conscience is good, and that the culturally specific application given by God to Israel--The Law of Moses--is also good. Jesus declared that all the laws and the prophets hang on one central point: "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way as you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets." -Matthew 7:12 Do you agree that it is good to treat others as you would like to be treated?

 

Every Point of the Law is Good


In the above verse Jesus declares that the principle of the Golden Rule applies in absolutely every situation. Do you agree that there is no exception to this rule? This means that God and your conscience have zero tolerance for you ever holding a grudge, ever being impatience with a careless driver, ever being irritated with a fellow Christian who rubs you the wrong way, ever being frustrated with your spouse, children, or parents, and certainly ever thinking about getting revenge. Zero tolerance for sin is good. What is your tolerance level for sin? 
 

The wholeness of the Law is Good


When you think of the law of God, the commands of Jesus, or the voice of your conscience, how do you interpret that information? Do you start with the individual points that you perceive and then slowly expand the scope of your evaluation, or do you see life as a whole and evaluate each point that you notice in light of the whole? In Deuteronomy 4 God told the Israelites that they were not to add to or take away from the commands of God, but were to keep them all. Shortly after in the same speech Moses told the people, "It will be our righteousness if we are careful to observe ALL this commandment before the Lord, just as He commanded us."-Deut. 6:25 We also read in Jesus most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, "Be ye therefore perfect just as your heavenly father is perfect." -Matthew 5:48 And we read the same thing in James, "He who keeps the whole law and breaks one point, is guilty of all." -James 2:10.

As mentioned above, The Bible says that God has written the moral law on the conscience of all people (Romans 1:19). Do you think that is true? If that is true and if that knowledge is accessible, then we should be able to discuss and evaluate together what is good. Does that intuitive understanding include the principle that goodness requires perfect obedience? In witnessing to students at USU I have many times shown them a card containing the following question and asked for their response.
True or false....
It is good to love your neighbor 99.99% of the time
AND
to abuse your neighbor 0.01% of the time
Students identifying themselves as atheists are generally lightning quick to answer that the statement is false because it is never good to abuse one's neighbor. They often have an edge in their voice that I suspect is a criticism of the hypocrisy they observe in the religious crowd. It is not uncommon for the traditionally religious students to squirm under the pressure of the question, because they don't want to admit that they are not good. It seems clear to me after hundreds of conversations with non-Christians that it is intuitively obvious in the human conscience that it is never good to do wrong and that goodness is a seamless whole.

It is Never Good to Dishonor the Wholeness of the Law or Any Point of It

Are you persuaded that God always wants the law to be honored in every point and in its wholeness? Do you think that God desires us to think that way, too? Do you think that God desires us to ever suppress the beauty of the wholeness of the law? I suggest that this is the key to unlocking spiritual blindness and to growing in personal and spiritual maturity. "The Lord is well-pleased for His righteousness sake; He will exalt the law and make it honorable."-Isaiah 42:21 The honor of the God's law is God's delight. Is it yours? Do you agree that God always sees every individual thought and action of every person in such a way that the honor the wholeness of the law is in view to Him? Do you think that it is good for us to neglect the honor of the wholeness of the law when we evaluate its individual points? It is possible to view individual points of the law, but in doing so there is great temptation to forget the law's wholeness. 

 

It is Never Good to Leave Goodness Undone

Several years ago I had a conversation with Alex, who said he was Jewish, an atheist, and a philosophy student from Florida. I asked him what he would do if he were walking to class along a small river and noticed a small child floundering in the water and about to drown. He said that he was a lifeguard and champion swimmer and would evaluate the situation quickly and jump in and save the child. I suggested that such would be a good action and that I and the child's parents would honor him. I then suggested to him that this day was going to be unusual for him in that as he continued on to class he would every few minutes notice another child floundering in that small river and about to drown. What would he do? He said that each time he would quickly evaluate and jump in and save the child. I asked him to imagine what would happen if when he got to the tenth child he decided not to save the child--not that he was tired or late for class, but simply didn't want to help that child. He said that such would not be good. I then asked what his friends would do when they found out that he had saved the lives of 9 children that day. Would they honor him as a good person? He was disgusted and said that if his friends knew that he intentionally hadn't helped the tenth child they would be angry and criticize him. He added that even if he had saved 99 children and intentionally let one drown, he couldn't be a good person. Do you agree with Alex? Life is full of good actions that your conscience calls you to do. Your conscience calls you to leave none of them undone. You and I have left many good deeds undone as well as doing much wrong that our conscience warned us against. Let's stop pretending that partial goodness counts with God.

 

You Are Not the Judge

How do you respond when you see a fellow Christian fail? How do you respond when that person hurts you? First, is it good for you to sit in the place of judgment for that person? Second, is it good for you to ignore or minimize or pretend away that failure of another Christian? None of these is good and so your only good option is to trust or honor God as the judge. God always maximizes sin and judges by perfect love and commands all people to do the same. Do you hear that call or do you minimize sin and take judgment into your own hands? 

 

Prosecution or Defense: Which team Are You On?

Do you hear the voice of God and your conscience calling you to honor perfect love as the only good way to see life? Since you are not the judge, you simply act for the defense or the prosecution in every situation you find yourself. As a Christian you are part of the defense team lead by Jesus. Satan leads the prosecution and points the finger of condemnation. In the moment that you notice someone fail or hurt you, how do you respond? Do you notice the violator from God's view of perfect love where the only hope is the death of Christ? Or do you dishonor the law and see hope in human performance? When you do the former you gladly receive all the bad treatment others give you because you are seeing Christ and the glory of sin-bearing love. Perfect love excludes all condemnation and gladly bears all things thinking of the blessing of the other. When you do the latter, you stumble over righteousness, get offended, fight back, and speak words of condemnation. You have played into the hands of the Accuser and are speaking and acting like you are on his team. We all have been tricked at times by the voice of the Accuser. Let's be honest and learn to discern these two voices that we might be effective peacemakers.

Let's make it practical. When someone hurts you which voice do you hear? The Accuser cries out, "Look at what he did to you!" The voice of the Spirit cries out, "Look at what Christ did for him and you!" How you respond to mistreatment reveals which voice you are heeding. Of course the mistreatment may be painful. Of course the person shouldn't have hurt you. But the call is for that person to be perfect not just to avoid that one action of mistreatment of you.  As a Christian you are not trapped in your circumstances; you have life above this world and thus have the freedom to see your life from above, from heaven. Christ has lifted you up, blessed you royally, freed you from all condemnation, and made you his royal peacemaker.  Your identity is as a member of the defense. Practice remembering that and watch what happens. 


Conclusion: Resist Dishonesty About Law



It is easy to be dishonest about your conscience and God's law and goodness. The Adversary always calls you to make God's law and love manageable, to lull you to sleep about perfect love.  It takes much practice to hear the voice of perfect love in the heat of the moment. But hearing the voice of perfect love is the only honest way. Let's not pretend that there is no spiritual battle. James calls saints to submit to God and resist the devil, and that then the devil would flee. I suggest that submitting to God is simply to honor, see, hear, and perceive perfect love in the moment. When you do the devil will have no room to work in your heart and life. Thank God often for His perfect love and for making perfect love the only good way to live and judge. Speak perfect love to yourself and to others. As you do this you may find yourself becoming more sensitive to the spiritual battle that rages all around us.
Perfect love or manageable tasks: the one you hear is the one you will speak.

Monday, May 30, 2016

WHAT IS THE FRUIT OF BEING A CHRISTIAN?

Notes From Our Recent Seminar on Grace

This is our fourth seminar on grace. In February the topic was the flesh and Spirit conflict and how our understanding of that affects how we perceive what it means to live the Christian life. The March topic was about how the fear of the Lord fits with grace. In April the topic was the question: What is grace? Today’s topic is related to the fruit of grace. But I suggest that the fruit of grace has two aspects. And today we will look at the first aspect. The second aspect is a big subject on its own. The first aspect is about conversion. When someone becomes a Christian something radically changes. What is it and how is it visible? We Christians look for the fruit that indicates and gives confidence that someone is a real Christian. Certainly God wants us to have confidence that we are alive and free in Christ. God also wants us to be confident about the status of other people. First let’s summarize the first three seminar topics briefly to refresh our minds and and get ready for today’s question.

Review

In the first seminar we looked at the question: what is the flesh. You seemed to agree with me about the conclusion that the flesh is really all about trusting in man’s strength and wisdom and trying to avoid being weak and to avoid doing bad things. This leads right into the devil’s hands. He wants us to resist our weaknesses rather than celebrating them. And he wants us to focus on our obedience and stumble into self-righteousness. The way of the spirit is 1) to stay aware of God’s call to always be perfect, 2) to rejoice in our weaknesses, and 3) to know that in Christ is everything a person needs. We also spoke of sin as a fruit of trusting in human ability. Maturity we described as a growing sensitivity to our weaknesses and growing confidence in Christ as all we need. Maturity also sees this as true for other people.
 Our second seminar was about how the fear of the Lord is actually the door into grace. Three good words together give us a sense of this fear: reverence, respect, and wonder. These words describe that God is good but He is not safe. Wonder conveys that He doesn’t fit in our box and is full of surprises. If we are thinking manageable thoughts about God then fear is absent. Also if we think we can manage our relationship with Him then we aren’t fearing Him. Life is precious and can end or be severely detoured at any moment by trials or critics. Are we content with that? To fear God means to be at peace realizing and trusting that no matter what comes our way He is our only hope and He is watching over us in tenderness. He is perfect love, requires perfect love, and gives it as a gift to all who rest in the finished work of Christ. When we fear God we have these thoughts not only about ourselves but about other people too. Dostoevsky put it beautifully when he wrote, “To love a person means to see him as God intended him to be.”  Do you see the door into grace?
Our third seminar was the question: What is grace? This simple question is answered by seeing the opposite of grace.  We Christians have a relationship with God of grace, which means unmerited favor. Simple, right? Our Mormon friends represent the world. They have a relationship with God that is one of merited favor. Merited favor means favor that is earned. That is pressure. The place of wisdom is for us to realize that God doesn’t mix the two. You either have a relationship with God of pure unmerited favor or pure merited favor. God keeps score perfectly: either you are totally free from the pressure of having to do good, or you are under the full pressure to have to do good all the time. The devil hates God and lies about Him all the time seeking to deceive us to go back to thinking that we have to do at least a little bit of good to get God’s full favor. Do you ever feel that pressure? Which is it? Are you under grace—unmerited favor? Or are you under law—the pressure to merit or earn God’s favor? God wants to favor everyone: either you merit his favor or Christ merits it for you. Aren’t you glad to be free from merit?
Let’s get started.

What is the Fruit of Being a Christian?

Have you heard that everyone knows about God but only a true Christian knows God personally? Likely you have used this in your style of witnessing to your Mormon friends and relatives who tell you that they are Christians too. They aren’t really Christians because they don’t really know God. But they think they do, right?
What is the difference between knowing about God and knowing God personally?
Our question today is really about the difference between the fruit of just knowing about God and the fruit of knowing God personally.  Raise you hand if you are confident that you can explain this difference clearly to someone.  Raise your hand if you feel that you could use a little help in understanding this difference more clearly. God has blessed us to live surrounded by Mormons to help us have to deal honestly with this issue. I suggest that Christians who don’t have our blessing can pretend to understand and not be challenged to think more deeply. I will tell my story about this later today. I lived here 25 years and witnessed to lots of Mormons before it became clear to me. 
Let’s assume that the fruit of knowing God personally is good fruit; and let’s also say that the fruit of just knowing about God is bad fruit. Raise your hand if  that make sense. If this is true then we need to do two things. 1) We need to figure out what these two fruits are. 2) We need to seek to become expert fruit inspectors. This way we can be glad ministers of peace to each other and to the lost people around us that we care for.

Matthew 7:15-23—The Scary Passage

This passage is commonly explained and preached in such a way that it is threatening to Christians. As I read it aloud notice your responses or your memories from the past concerning it.
"Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.’" –Matthew 7:15-23

Let’s be honest. Have you ever felt threatened by this passage? Did you feel a little of that just now? At the end of our time together today I am going to read it again. Then we will evaluate our responses to see if there is any change. Get ready for a surprise.

 The Mormon View


How does our Mormon culture understand and teach this passage? I want to reveal this by telling a true story. About ten years ago an old Christian woman called me and asked me to go with her to the funeral of her active Mormon friend. As we sat there the bishop got up and gave a talk. He spoke sternly and threateningly. He reminded me in appearance and in voice tone of the Marine sargeant in the television program I used to watch as a kid. Do you remember Gomer Pyle and his sargeant? That guy was always threatening people and making life miserable for everyone else. The bishop spoke of how wonderful the old woman had been and how she had done what was required to be welcomed to live with God forever. Then in his sargeant voice he pointed at and panned the audience and said that everyone was going to appear before God some day and that some or many in the audience were going to be surprised because God was going to send them away for not being like that woman and doing all that was needed. I suspected that many in the audience felt threatened. Later the stake president, the bishop's boss, got up to speak. He was a large friendly man. In his talk he spoke anxiously as he said that he hoped that when he got there he would have done as much as the old woman and would not be sent away.


What is your response to that story? Did you feel feel the heat of the bishop’s words? Didn’t he sound like he was trying to imitate Jesus in our passage? Have you ever heard Christians talk like that, especially about this passage?

About the same time a Mormon woman about 40 to whom I had witnessed before came in Oasis. As I engaged her in conversation about sin and salvation I commented on how her words were similar to what other Mormons had told me. She corrected me and said that the other Mormons didn’t really know God personally, but only knew about him. She proceeded to tell me about her good points and about the bad points of the other Mormons—especially about their pride and judgmentalism. At the end of that revealing conversation she commented that she was having a really proud day.

What was the fruit that she was inspecting to make the distinction between herself and the other Mormons—between knowing God personally and just knowing about Him? She drew a line somewhere as to how much good work was sufficient to prove she knew God and the others didn’t. Is that how we Christians do or should think?

Have you ever had a Mormon tell you that good works or good behavior are the fruit that God is looking for to show that a person really knows God?

What Was Lacking in My Understanding?


In my first 25 years in Utah, Mormons used to quote this passage to me to prove that their church was true because of its good fruit. They would explain all the good works of their church and its members and equate good works with good fruit. I would then open the Bible to this passage, show it to them, and then help them notice that it said that the fruit was perfect. I would tell them that they and I weren’t perfect and so they were wrong about what the fruit was. I would tell them that I didn’t know what it was talking about, but it was obviously not what they were saying because the fruit had to be perfect. That is the best I could do with this passage until Eli joined me in ministry 8 years ago. He first noticed what the fruit was and then shared it with me. 


What is Perfect About You?


What is it about you that is perfect? If it isn’t your behavior, then what is it? Where does your behavior come from anyway? Jesus said that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders." We all grew up with evil hearts and needed a new heart from God. What is the good heart? Is it just behavior, having totally good behavior? That is impossible or we are all sunk.

I suggest that a good heart is all about identity. Raise you hand if before you were a Christian you thought you had at least one good point that you used to feel good about yourself? Did you ever think that you were better than somebody else? I sure did. Any confidence I had about being forgiven was about that. When the first Christian told me that forgiveness was a free gift paid for by the blood of Jesus, I opposed those words. Did you ever think like that back then?


My Story


I became a Christian as a university student 37 years ago. One day a Christian named Don knocked on my door, invited me to some event, and then later witnessed to me. I opposed Don’s words about the free gift but hung around with him and his friends. He and his friends did Bible study, had prayer meetings, were active in Church, and put high emphasis on growing in Christ and witnessing. Over the years I have spoken with many Christians who have struggled with doubts about their salvation. I have never really doubted my salvation and wondered why. Don has been a Christian missionary now for 35 years. He told me a few years ago that he had legalistic tendencies when I met him and then 20 years ago at a conference he heard a speaker talk about grace as the way to live the Christian life. Don was angered by the message, wondering if he had wasted his Christian life in the hard work of evangelism and discipleship. He complained in tears to his wife. She told him to go to his room and pray. God spoke to him that grace wasn't the absence of good works, but rather was about grace motivated and grace empowered good works.  
I wondered what Don had thought and taught in his legalistic days about the fruit to look for to know if someone was a Christian since legalists often have a serious list of things they look for. So last fall when Don visited Logan I asked him. He said that in his legalistic days he never struggled with doubts about salvation because the Bible passage he used to understand if someone was a Christian was:

"If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life." -1John 5:9-13

Don said that if a person has the Son then the person has life and is a Christian. That is known by a person having God's testimony. He said that for him it has always been that simple. He said he never looked at other things like a changed life, but said a person's life would change in some ways. I meditated on Don's words and realized that I must have learned from Don and his friends to use that one simple test for myself and for others to know if a person was a real Christian.

Have you had other tests to know if you were a Christian? Have you heard preachers give other tests besides this simple one? What if all those other passages are really different ways of saying this same simple test? I suggest that they are. Do you have the Son? Do you have the testimony in your heart that life is in the Son and that having the Son is all you need to have eternal life? Let’s ask it in a negative way. When is the last time you told someone something such as Jesus was not enough to have eternal life because eternal life was not a free gift? I said it before I was a Christian but never once since my conversion. Raise your hand if that is true for you too. When I ask Mormons to remember the last time they told someone that full exaltation was a free gift, they say that they have never even had the thought that it was free. They have an evil heart that trusts in having some good works in order to have eternal life.  A Christian’s testimony is perfectly good and a Mormon’s testimony is perfectly bad. Your testimony changed when you became a Christian because your heart changed. A good heart knows that it is weak and sinful and Jesus is all that is needed to be with God forever. Raise your hand if you know that.


The Jewish Leaders and Sheila


If when you get to heaven there happened to be a gate, and there happened to be an angel at the gate asking each person why entrance should be granted, what would you say? Are you going to talk like those self-righteous Jewish teachers Jesus mentioned and tell about your good works, or are you going to sound something like Sheila, a simple old woman who was unsure that she was a Christian.


Angel with a smile: Why should I let you it?
Sheila: Oh no! I am a sinner. Jesus died for me. That’s it.

Isn't it obvious from her words that Sheila is a Christian?
Raise your hand if you are like Sheila.
The fruit is your testimony that you are a helpless sinner and the Son is all that a person needs to have eternal life. Agreed? 

The Scary Passage Again


Listen and watch your reactions as I read Matthew 7 again.

"Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.’" –Matthew 7:15-23

Did you feel threatened or were you glad that Jesus was enough? 
Did you at least notice having less distress?