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 problem of 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 to celebrate 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 many 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 this 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?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

LEGALISM: HOW TO DO IT WELL

The Blessing of Life in a Culture of Pure Legalism


I have had the privilege of having significant relationships with Christians from various traditions. Because of our Mormon culture, Christians here are sensitive to the issue of legalism and discuss it often. Mormons specialize in legalism because their religion is all about legalism from beginning to end. They talk much about the importance of doing good things. We agree with them that it is good to do good things. But when we Christians explain how grace is unmerited favor, they object and declare that obedience to commandments is necessary to please God and be accepted by Him. One can't get forgiveness free they tell us because that would make people lazy. They do use the word grace and are doing so more and more, but don't be fooled. If you listen closely and ask questions you will discover that what they mean by grace is usually some form of kind or gentle legalism--another chance to keep the rules. Grace doesn't free you from the rules, but gives you help and more time to keep them. Rules must eventually be kept. So living in this overwhelmingly dominant culture of Mormonism of pure legalism forces us to stay alert. Without alertness here one can easily get sucked into the lies of legalism.

What is legalism?


This simple question is not simple to answer. I have thought about it for many years and been dissatisfied with my own study and thought about it and with what I have heard others say or write about it. A few years ago I decided to try to avoid using the word because, even here, we tend to be sensitive to legalism in other people but not in ourselves. Why is it that when we Christians use the word legalism we are almost always pointing the finger at other people and not at ourselves--at other denominations and not at our own? Why do I never point the finger at myself and say something like: "Wow, I am really having legalistic thoughts. or I am having a legalistic day. or Please forgive me for being so legalistic"? Do you notice any legalism in others? Some likely notice it in you. When is the last time you noticed it in yourself? Isn't this an interesting dilemma?

The Key Word: Manageable


Just recently a word or thought came to me that may be helpful: manageable. Mormonism is all about making God's expectations manageable. Does God really want us Christians to do that? To think or speak of God's law or commandments in a manageable way is legalism. To think or speak of my (or your) obedience in a manageable way is legalism. Now that seems to have a enough clarity so that I can begin to notice legalism in myself and you can notice it in yourself. Am I making the law, commandments, or my obedience manageable? Likely we all have an intuitive sense about it, and thus we can notice it somewhat when we see it in others, but without clear thinking can't see it in ourselves. 

It is like judgmentalism. A huge number of Mormons have told me that what they really don't like about other Mormons is that they are so judgmental. I generally ask those people if it is easy for them to resist the temptation to judge judgmental people. That question gently asked always wins the lottery. Every time the person has responded in embarrassment admitting to being just like the people being criticized. It is good to judge if we judge by perfection as God does, otherwise we are judging unrighteously. What authority do we have to do that? Righteous judgment--judgment by the standard of perfection--reveals that we are all in the same boat together as failures and makes it impossible to look down on another person--truly impossible. When we judge by some lowered manageable standards, we have entered the arena of competition where some of us succeed and others fail. Judgmentalism then is unavoidable. You may think highly of yourself that you are able to have manageable standards without being judgmental, but by doing so you are just proving my point that you think that you can succeed where others fail. You are fooling yourself. In the same way, God's law and obedience to God are good. Could it be that legalism is simply the natural result of shrinking either of these in such a way as to make them manageable? 


Isaiah's Experience


Notice the following beautiful verse in a Messianic chapter in the Gospel of Isaiah. I call it the Gospel of Isaiah because it is filled with grace--unmerited favor poured out on God's people--righteousness as a gift--God's delight in His Son and in His people.

"The Lord is well pleased for His righteousness sake; He will exalt the law and make it glorious." -Isaiah 42:21

Does this verse convey a sense of awe and glory, or of manageability? Exaltation is the opposite of manageability. But God can manage the exaltation of the law, where as we can't. Read Isaiah 6:1-7 and notice his experience.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the traina of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
 

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”



Whatever Isaiah saw crushed his pride. He realized and cried out that he was a spiritually ruined man. What he saw was so big that it made him realize that all the people of Israel were spiritually ruined, too. The result was that Isaiah was spiritually healed and transformed. What did he see? I suggest that he saw the perfect righteousness of God and the surprise of unmerited favor that flows from that righteousness. In John 12:38-41, the Apostle John declares that what Isaiah saw in his vision was Isaiah chapter 53--"by his knowledge the righteous servant will make many righteous, for he will bear their iniquities." I have been greatly blessed to notice this connection and meditate much on it. See if such meditation might bless you.

How to do Legalism Well


I would like to give a humorous exhortation of how to do legalism well. If you live in Mormon culture you likely will hear an echo of this culture. That is the point. Manageability is the name of the game in Mormonism. Satan is alive and well and seeking to get us Christians to believe his lies and to think like Mormons, who are expert legalists or managers of God's expectations. They use religious words with unbiblical definitions which sound so convincing. Thus in the following, most religious words will be used with enticing Mormon definitions: worldliness, godliness, flesh, walking in the Spirit, laziness, obedience, and more. Remember that Satan masquerades as an angel of light and so his advice will be subtle counterfeits of truth. Here is my version of some of his advice to Christians as to how to obey God. See if you can detect the lies in the words and how manageability is ever present. Especially deceitful is the word flesh. Let's learn to laugh at ourselves in our failures so that we might better notice when we have bought into the lies. So here goes. What follows is Satan's advice for how to obey God.

Satan says:
  • The first step in obedience to God is to realize that obedience is very important and that it is wrong and sinful to not obey God. 
  • Second, it is important to realize that there are two serious errors to avoid in seeking to obey God. Just as one can go in the ditch on the left or right side of the road when driving, so it is possible to be a lazy Christian or a legalist. Laziness is obvious. There are a lot of people who don't want to take seriously living the Christian life well--growing in the lord and living a holy life. This is a big problem, but the other problem can sneak up on a person who is taking obedience seriously. In seeking to avoid laziness it is possible to over correct and end up off the other side of the road in the ditch of legalism. Legalism is about using the law in a wrong way. The law is good but some people get way too pushy with it. That is legalism. So be careful to avoid being lazy, but also avoid being too pushy with the law.  
  • Third, let's clarify and solidify our understanding. Make no mistake: God wants us to do good to our families, fellow saints, and unsaved neighbors. The Good Samaritan was one of Jesus' most popular parables. That Samaritan went out of his way to help a man who likely hated Samaritans. Use this parable as a reminder that no one is too bad for you to help. So be a good Samaritan to the people in your life. As you go through your days visualize others as hurt and in the ditch and in need of some kind of compassion from you.
  • Fourth, you likely already notice that we all sometimes forget to do good and fail. It is important to not condemn yourself for that. Remember that Jesus is everything you need. And as long as you aren't a lazy Christian, you can look at your past and see that you have come a long way. That should be a big comfort. When you fail, thank God for Jesus. Remember that He doesn't expect for you to be perfect in your obedience but only  to make progress in becoming a more obedient Christian day by day.
  • Fifth, keep in mind that the key to winning the spiritual battle is to know your enemy. It may be that the flesh is the greatest enemy in the Christian life. The flesh is your weakness and tendency to sin. So watch out for those in every situation. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Don't let your weaknesses and sins rule you. 
  • Sixth, another enemy to watch out for is worldliness. This is a deceitful trap. Many men get trapped in watching too much sports and some women get trapped in following the latest fashions. Many young people get hooked on cell phones. These are just three obvious examples, but there are many more. Use self-control or you will find yourself getting pulled into sins of various kinds. There are many ways to sin; so be alert for temptation.
  • Seventh, the third thing to watch our for is ungodliness. We can approach this topic from a positive direction. Live a godly life and ungodliness will not be a problem for you. Choose to fill your life with prayer, Bible reading, evangelism, helping the poor, and visiting the shut-ins in your church. These days there are so many children from broken homes. Seek to speak blessing to those people at church because they have it real rough. All these things are good and so when you focus on them you won't have time for ungodly things like greed, selfishness, anger, laziness, and more.
  • Eighth, remember that you are a new creation in Christ. This means that you have a new nature and thus sin can now really be a thing of the past for you. The Holy Spirit has power. Don't get tricked into thinking that the Spirit isn't strong enough to help you resist sin. 
  • Ninth, remember that you are not a lone-ranger Christian. You are part of God's people. Therefore apply all the above principles to the Christians you know. Remind them of these principles and exhort them to apply them.  
  • Last, walk in the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. The Spirit always leads you to its fruit: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, etc. The Spirit never points you to immorality, impurity, envy, idolatry, strife, anger, drunkenness, and such like. The flesh does that. Keep these two lists in mind as you seek to be led by the Spirit. The Spirit will never lead you to sin.
  • Now you are ready to obey God. The sky is the limit when you have the Spirit to empower you to do God's will.

Legalism is seeing God's expectations--His commandments and our obedience--in some manageable form. Only Jesus can manage perfect expectations. This applies when thinking of Christians and non-Christians. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

DOES THE SINNERS PRAYER ALWAYS WORK?

The Puzzle


I have spoken with many people who have told me that they have prayed the sinner's prayer and it didn't work. Years ago I heard a woman say in a gathering of Christians that she had just prayed the sinner's prayer for the 26th time and was hoping that it was finally going to work. If it didn't work the first 25 times, why would this woman have any confidence that it would ever work for her? In my observations the sinner's prayer doesn't seem to work every time. Why is that? Is it because God doesn't want it to be so predictable? Is it because God doesn't want certain sinners to be saved and so won't hear their prayer? I suggest that the answer is simple, surprisingly simple.


Being a Counterfeit Sinner


Living in Mormon culture has had surprising benefits in understanding my own religion more clearly. It may be that all of the thousands of Mormons I have spoken with about spiritual matters have freely offered, or at least agreed, that they are sinners. Does that surprise you? After many conversations I became suspicious that something was missing. Now when a Mormon admits to being a sinner, I ask for explanation of what is meant by the word sinner. The conversation that follows is often humorous, at least from my vantage point. Here is a sample conversation.

Mormon: Of course I am a sinner.
Me: May I ask you a few questions to see which kind of sinner you are?
Mormon: I thought that there was just one kind of sinner.
Me: There are two kinds of sinners: helpless sinners and sinners with assets. Which kind are you?
Mormon: I am not sure what you mean. Can you explain?
Me: Some of Jesus' first words were, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This is the first line from his most famous speech, the Sermon on the Mount, and is found in Matthew 5:3. Have you heard of it?
Mormon: I don't remember.
Me: The word poor is actually the word beggar in the original Bible. Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual beggar?
Mormon: I still am not sure I catch your meaning.
Me: You have ever seen a beggar?
Mormon: Yes.
Me: What does a beggar have to offer?
Mormon: Nothing. He just takes.
Me: So in the spiritual world do you see yourself as a spiritual beggar, or do you have good things that you can offer to God?
Mormon: Of course I have something to offer to God.
Me: Can you give me some examples?
Mormon: I can repent. I can offer sincerity and willingness.
Me: So then you are not a spiritual beggar who can only take. You have assets. According to Jesus you don't qualify for the kingdom of heaven. 37 years ago I gave up thinking I had anything good to offer God and realized that I was a spiritual beggar.

This conversation usually opens a door to explain the difference between a gift and a reward. All Mormons tell me that they believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins. I then ask them what then need to do to connect to what Jesus did for them. They reply with words like: repent, try to keep the commandments. do what is right. At this point I commonly give the testimony of a friend who became a Christian as an active Mormon by reading the Book of Mormon. 


Testimony: A Counterfeit Sinner Becomes a Real One


About 15 years ago this active Mormon was witnessed to by a Christian. And to cover her bases, she prayed the sinner's prayer. But nothing happened. Eight years later while reading the Book of Mormon two versed shocked her and opened her eyes to see that she was spiritually ruined. One was the famous third to the last verse in the book, which contains the following. Notice my bold emphasis of the words of all, and if/then.

"and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind, and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you,"

When she read this she suddenly realized that only if she was perfect would she get grace from God to cover her past sins. She knew that such was impossible, gave up all hope in herself, and cried out to God that Jesus died for her and that that was all she had. Immediately she was filled with peace, knew she was forgiven, and began to tell her Mormon friends. They thought she was crazy. Eventually she realized what had happened to her and found some Christians to join. 


The Sinner's Prayer Always Works


The sinner's prayer always works when prayed by a real sinner. The problem is that most people are counterfeit sinners. They have deceived themselves into thinking and saying that they are sinners when they actually mean that they are good people who sin sometimes. This is what Mormons tell me. Just as honest awareness of perfection crushed the pride of this friend and opened her eyes to her true sinful condition, so too it is what God designed to open the eyes of any spiritually blind person. Let's become experts at kindly and gladly helping others become honestly aware that perfection is the only good way to relate to God. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

THE POWER OF UNMERITED FAVOR TO CHANGE A MIND

A few years ago a young Christian man used to stop in Oasis often on his lunch break. One day he came in angry and announced that there was no hope for a certain named person. I asked him what made him say that, and he told me the story. He said that he and the other man played together on a Christian softball team and they had gotten into an argument. The other man had picked up a baseball bat and threatened him with it. From that point the conversations reflected the following. See if you can relate.

Me: What he did to you was really sinful.
Brother: No need to tell me.
Me: Is he a Christian?
Brother: Yeah.
Me: Has God forgiven him for all his sins?
Brother: Of course.
Me: Is God counting his sins?
Brother: No
Me: Then why are you mad?
Brother: I am counting.

At this point the conversation changed and the brother relaxed realizing that his problem was that he had forgotten how God viewed the other Christian. Also he admitted that he had been angry in the argument. We rejoice together in what Christ had done for us all and he said that he would call the brother that night and admit his wrong even if the other brother didn't. The next day he came back and said that when he called the brother, the brother was in tears confessing his own sins. The rest of the story is that these two men became fast friends. Grace is powerful.

Unmerited favor takes what seems a hopeless relationship and fills it with hope of the gospel, not of personal performance. But it is not automatic. It requires remembering the freedom Christ has given in His work on the cross and understanding what that all means. Do you have any troubled relationships with Christians? Talk to God about it and tell Him how bad the other person's behavior is. Don't minimize it--maximize it. Tell Him that the person deserves hell for that sin. Thank Him for the cross freeing that person from what he deserves: from all condemnation, guilt, shame, and score keeping. Maybe even thank Him for smiling down on that other person who troubles you so much. Try it and see what happens. You might find you actually like that person. Miracles do happen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

SEEING RIGHT-SIDE UP: GRACE FOR OTHER PEOPLE

Unmerited Favor for You


If you are a Christian then you have been saved by grace (unmerited favor) through faith without any personal works. Does that make your heart sing? As a Christian you now have a relationship with God based on unmerited favor. That ought to make your heart sing, too.


Satan is Real and a Liar


Do you believe that Satan is real? I do. I think that his big lie is all about persuading and deceiving me to think that there is somehow still some merit that I need to bring to my relationship with God. I consider that to be a lie and keep alert for it, but freely admit that I have swallowed it more times than I realize. How about you? Do you agree that it is a lie? Are you alert to avoid buying it? Have you like me been tricked at times?


The Big Identity Change


I became a Christian 37 years ago. Like everyone else, I started life with an identity under the elementary principles of the world (Galatians 4:3), under the merit system of my conscience, under the law. My conscience told me to always do the right thing. I didn't; I made excuses; I blamed others; I tried to feel good about myself by comparing myself to others; I became rather proficient at looking down on others; and I saw Jesus as a lawgiver who needed to be obeyed or placated in order to obtain forgiveness from him. Can you relate to my experience? One day a Christian knocked on my door at university and told me that forgiveness was a free gift paid for by the death of Christ and offered to helpless sinners. I couldn't believe my ears. That guy was really wrong and I told him so. "You have to be good to get forgiveness, and if I am not good enough then the line behind me is really long." I laugh at that statement now as it seems rather self-righteous, but on that day I was dead serious about it. I had quit a Protestant church and become an agnostic, but still my mind and my identity were all about merit. I resisted that guy, but went with him and his friends to Bible study and church for months to prove to myself that religion was a waste of time. But they were clean cut like I was, and they liked me, in spite of my very self-righteous attitude. I was intrigued. Watching them and reading the words of Jesus for myself for the first time slowly sensitized me to the truth that Jesus is a grace-giver, not a law-giver, and won't cheapen perfection for anyone. It is like I woke up one day rejoicing that forgiveness was a gift and I had it. My identity suddenly changed; one day I was under a relationship of merit with God and life, and the next day I knew that I was free in Christ from God requiring merit from me. My testimony of God changed from one of merited favor to unmerited favor. 

The reason my testimony changed is that my identity changed. In 37 years I have never had the thought that merit was required to be with God forever. But before I was a Christian I never had the thought that such was unmerited. I have asked Mormon students if they could remember the last time that they told someone that full exaltation (being forever with God) was a free gift that didn't require any personal works. As I have pushed them to try harder to remember, they have replied in this vain: "Why would I say that since I have never even had the thought that it was free." Their testimony is merited favor because their identity is merited favor. Which is your testimony?


The Surprise of Grace as Community


When I became a Christian, my identity changed. This was personal but it was not merely personal. In the universe there are two identities as Romans 6:14 declares, "For sin shall not have dominion over you because you are not under law [merited favor] but under grace [unmerited favor]." Because of the way God created the universe, every person is born in the world under the authority of law; doing good is obligatory to avoid judgement; and favor is merited. At the creation of the universe unmerited favor existed in the heart of God but did not exist in the created universe--not until Jesus died on the cross. The conscience knew about unmerited favor but had no authority to grant it. Until the cross God had passed over sin, He had not technically forgiven it yet. (See Romans 3:25) The substitutionary death of Christ opened the door to unmerited favor, to redemption from law, which is the forgiveness of sins. (See Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14) Fifty days later at Pentecost, God poured out His promised Spirit of righteousness on Israel, freeing it from the Old Covenant of pure merited favor and giving it the New Covenant of pure unmerited favor. Sins and transgressions would be remembered no more by God. A new community was born within the old and all in Israel were commanded to change their minds, abandon confidence in merited favor, and enter this new community of the authority of unmerited favor. Then the Samaritans were welcomed in, (See Acts 8) and finally the Gentiles were welcomed in. (See Acts 10) God intended this new community to fill the whole earth. All are born in the world, and all are called, invited, commanded, and welcomed to turn from merited favor and come into the Community of grace, of unmerited favor. 


Unmerited Favor For All Other People


Do you see these two communities and their authority--the world (merited favor) and the New Covenant gathering (unmerited favor)? Every individual is in the world, but those who God has adopted into His royal family have entered the community of unmerited favor and are not of the world because they are dead to merit with God. Satan and the world hate this new community of freedom from merit, but God delights in it as it is His community built on His love and His righteousness alone. As you relate to the people around you, do you seek to notice the identity of each and relate to each based on their identity? Or do you tend to view people based on their behavior? Are you attracted to broken people as Jesus was, longing to show them the door into the community of grace? Do you see each of those still trapped under the authority of merit as hopeless no matter how much they improve? Do you see them all--the most evil ones even--as invited into the celebration of unmerited favor? You may say that you see identity clearly, but let me offer a test of your optimism. 


Jesus saw people perfectly through their identity. He was never distracted. He saw evil behavior but always saw it in light of identity. So when He was hanging on the cross naked and in great pain, He cried out to the Father for the Father to free His persecutors from their guilt by giving it all to Him: "Father forgive them, give me all their shame and guilt." So when a fellow saint--one delighted in by God, free from all shame and guilt, and free from the pressure of merit--mistreats you in some way, what is your reaction? Have you thanked the Father for the privilege you have of carrying that burden for the other person? Think over the past years and seek to remember times of great betrayal, pain, abuse, criticism, or financial deception you suffered at the hands of another Christian. How did you respond? Did you see that person as free from the pressure of merit while he was mistreating you? If so, do you think that violator sensed a warm welcome from you to a closer relationship? Did you give that violator a piece of your mind or did you give him the peace of the cross? Contact me, give me the name of the person who badly hurt you, and let me ask that person if he felt a warm welcome from you while he was criticizing you. What do you think he will say? If you gave him a warm welcome while he was criticizing you, then he will remember it--at least in general. Why? It is very rare among us Christians to welcome criticism gladly. If you did it, it will be note worthy. Let's stop pretending and admit that good behavior on the part of other Christians is what we really care about.  


Thinking of Real Life Brings Understanding


My friend John and I talk much seeking to stir each other to understand grace more clearly. It is a great blessing. He and I had a conversation last summer that reflects the following. 


John:  Brad, I know that God always smiles on me even in the middle of me being an idiot and not treating others kindly.  When my attitude is awful and my action towards others is hurtful God still looks fondly upon me.   Even through all my badness God still likes me.  The work of Jesus on the cross is all I need for God to be pleased with me.

Brad: I am glad that is true for you and me, for your wife and mine, for your children and mine, as well as for all other Christians.

John:  As hard as it is to understand I am learning to see the truth of it and usually only get depressed when I fail and in the middle of my failure forget what Christ did for me.  It is sometimes easy to forget that even at my worst God always likes me because of His Son. The really hard part for me is seeing how it works for others who are unkind to me.  I know this sounds hypocritical, but when someone sins against me I really want God to avenge.

Brad: Don't all Christians have the same grace relationship with God that you have?

John: Of course they do, but how do I see that for them when they are mistreating me?

Brad: So while you are upset at your wife and speaking rudely to her, are you totally free and God is smiling on you and likes you?

John: Yep.

Brad: The same applies to other people. Let's say you do something wrong and your wife gets really upset with you and not only speaks rudely to you, but in revenge donates your expensive golf clubs to the thrift store. She has done a terrible thing, but while she was doing all that to you God was smiling on her and likes her all because of Christ.

John:  I understand it, but that it doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m forgetful. However, remembering this one thing would be a game changer. It would mean never getting upset with anyone again.   

Do You Want to See Grace for Others?


If you say that you want to get a vision of grace for other people then I would suggest that you talk to God about it. Be honest in your conversation and even humorously so, if needed. God can handle honest conversation. Start where you are not where you think God wants you to be. Tell God things like:

  • God what I really want is for other people to behave properly and stop making my life difficult.
  • God, you want them to remember what Jesus did for them so that they will change and do good things out of thankfulness. 
  • But God I don't want to wait. I am tired of carrying burdens for lazy Christians. I want them to change now.
  • I am glad that you have forgiven me freely and completely because of the cross, but salvation changes people and that Christian (name him or her) isn't serious about changing.
  • God, you call me to rejoice always, but do you really mean for me to rejoice while other Christians are mistreating me?
  • God, you do tell me to do everything without complaining, but certainly that does't apply when I feel hurt by other Christians, does it? 
  • God, you do tell me to give thanks always, but you don't know how frustrating my wife and children can be at times.
  • God I am really angry that my husband gives me almost no tenderness and understanding. He treats me like his servant. He is making my life miserable. He says that he is a Christian, and so why don't you fix him? 
  • God, don't you realize that M_____ keeps hurting me and deserves a piece of my mind?
  • God, I am not as bad a Christian as M_____, at least I am trying to do right. Of course compared to Jesus we are both failures, but do you really want me to think so negatively?
  • God, thank you for not giving me what I deserve, but giving all my guilt, shame, and condemnation to Christ. Thank you that the finished work of Christ is all I need for life. Thank you that all the Christians, especially M_____, who hurt me are completely free from condemnation, even while they are hurting me. Thank you for rejoicing over me with singing and for rejoicing in song over those who bother me.  Thank you that you really like those Christians who hurt me and even like them as much as you like me. Thank you that even though M_____ can't stand me, you fully welcome him in Christ. Thank you that Jesus was glad to carry all M____'s sin. Thank you for giving me the privilege of knowing M____ and carrying all the burdens M_____ chooses to give me. Help me remind him of how much you love him. Thank your for making all my troubles, afflictions, weaknesses, and critics to be a blessing to me. Please bring them to me whenever you think I need them. Thank you for being a tender Father and for bringing into my life only what is good for me and brings you glory. Thank you for adopting us all into your royal family and promising never to cast us out. Thank you for putting me with all the saints in your kingdom of unmerited favor where we all are free from all condemnation and all have all the treasures of heaven.
Make your prayers practical about other Christians (name them individually) you perceive to be troubling you and watch your heart open toward them. You might begin to like and enjoy them while they are mistreating you. You might even feel compassion toward them for the pain they are feeling for forgetting the cross--a forgetfulness that is the cause of their mistreatment of you. You might begin to notice their failings as God does--as hell-deserving--and notice them as God does--as righteous in Christ, fully covered by the blood, and a source of joy. Wouldn't that be a novel way to think? 



Saturday, May 14, 2016

ARE YOU CONFIDENT THAT GOD IS GOOD? A TEST

If you say that you trust that God is good, then I have a test for you.
True or False...
  1. If God is good then all that He brings into your life is for your benefit and blessing.
  2. All that does come into your life works for good because you know God.
  3. Every criticism that you receive, even when false and unkind, is a blessing to you from God.
  4. You gladly welcome all criticism as a blessing from God.
  5. You know your tendency to resist criticism and therefore pray and ask God to bring you critics to help you overcome this tendency.
  6. Since God is good and critics are His blessing to you, you regularly thank God for bringing them to you.
  7. Since God is good, you rejoice in the Lord always while receiving criticism, realizing that you are worse than the critics declare.
  8. Since critics are a blessing from God to help you see your need to learn to love, you thank your critics for offering their criticism--even when it is not valid--to honor their care for you.
If you trust that God is good then the above will naturally overflows from that trust. Have you been afraid to pray in this way? Are you thinking that God's answer might be out of your control? What does that reveal about your confidence that God is good? Here is a simple step forward in trusting the goodness of God. Will you take it? The Christians around you would be blessed if you did.
"Father in heaven, thank you that you are good in all that comes my way. Thank you that all my critics are a blessing sent from your hand of love to help me see my need to grow in love. Please bring me critics on your schedule as much as you think I need. Sooner is better than later for the sake of my family, friends, and church. Thank you for making Christ to be all my security when the critics come. Amen."
Decades ago an article by AW Tozer brought the above to my attention and I began to pray this way. It is easy and natural for us humans to see our critics as a problem. I suggest that we cannot overcome this problem, but can only suppress it. The good news is that God can overcome it for us. Since beginning to pray this prayer, all my critics have become an answer to prayer. By definition they are no longer a problem for me but rather a blessing to me. What a relief. God is so good! Let's celebrate...even with our critics. 
FYI: This applies to trials as well as critics. Feel free to make that application also.

Monday, May 9, 2016

THE SURPRISE IN SEEING GRACE AS UNMERITED FAVOR

Are you a Christian? If you are, then likely you rejoice that you were and are saved by grace. You likely have heard preachers explain that grace is unmerited favor. Thus every Christian has a relationship with God based on unmerited favor.
But what exactly is unmerited favor? Having favor with another person means to have a relationship where there is peace and harmony and no walls keeping you at a distance. You are welcome into the heart of the other person. If that favor is unmerited then there are no performance rules that you have to keep to fully experience that favor. Unmerited favor is a gift from one person to another. This is what separates Christianity from all other religions--unmerited favor. 

Lies, Lies, Lies


I suggest that Satan is real and that there is a good reason why Jesus called him the father of lies. The world is full of lies that are intended to destroy, hinder, suppress, or mock good relationships between people and between a person and God. One of those lies is about unmerited favor. I would like to test to see if you ever buy that lie as I sometimes do.

The Blessing of Living in a Culture of Pure Merit


The culture where I live is a wonderful place to see the nuances of what it means to be a Christian. The nuances of the lies are more visible too. In my area of Utah about 90% of the Anglos identify as Mormons and say that they are Christians. They strongly emphasize being kind and generous to neighbors, helping the poor, forgiving those who wrong them, and seeking to be humble. But something is missing in my Mormon culture: unmerited favor. Mormonism teaches that all favor is merited--that is what life is about. They call life on earth a time of probation. Probation is always about merit. When I witness to Mormons I explain that God loved the world and sent his son to die on the cross to offer a relationship with him of unmerited favor. When they get the meaning of my words, they are surprised and disagree saying things like: "There is no free lunch," "You have to be accountable for your actions," "We are here on earth to learn to do what is right," or "Why do anything good then." One old man put it best: "You do the crime, you do the time." Mormons do use the word grace frequently but mean by it God's kind second chance and help to do what is right. They say that doing the right thing is necessary to avoid the consequences. They often volunteer that their hope includes another chance in the next life to stop sinning. This is pure merited favor. It is a heavy burden. The lie is that if God or I speak kindly, give more chances, but also require merit, then it is grace. The lie about relationships happens when merit is mixed into the equation or when unmerited favor is left out.

The Fruit of Merit Thinking


How the merit system plays out in my culture is where the lie hits home. See if you can relate to  any of following. It may be a bit uncomfortable. Since I am not a Mormon and because of my approach in witnessing, Mormons seem to easily tell me their problems. I have had many hundred Mormons tell me one by one what they don't like about other Mormons, or about how they have been hurt by other Mormons (family, friends, neighbors, or people from church). I listen, waiting for a door for the gospel, which nearly always appears. Often the door is almost too big to miss. They never tell me that the problem with the other Mormons is that they are too forgiving, too loving, too kind, too generous, or too humble. What they tell me is that the other person has not merited forgiveness, or friendship, or a smile, or a kind word. The list goes on. Parents tell me of how their children are so frustrating or disappointing. Teenagers and university students tell me how they hate their parents attempts to manipulate their behavior. What is really common is for them to tell me that what really bothers them is pride and judgmentalism of "all the other Mormons." How do they know all the other Mormons? It is common to hear things like, "When that person apologizes or really changes then I will forgive him." "He doesn't deserve my forgiveness." "There is no hope for that person for what she did." "At least I am not as bad as that person." "He is such a disappointment." Do you hear the constant chant of: merit, merit, merit and the brokenness of the relationships caused by keeping score of merit?

Unmerited Favor and You


You and every other Christian you know has a relationship with God of unmerited favor that is free from the pressure of merit. Do you agree? If it is not true then we all are in big trouble. Now let's evaluate. When another Christian wrong's you how do you respond? Do you delight that God is not keeping score for that person because of Jesus? Do you draw near that person to comfort her in her failure as she might have forgotten how much God loves her and have moved into the lie of self-condemnation? Do you freely accept the blame that you don't deserve, as Jesus did, and remind the person of how glad you are to be together with her in God's unmerited favor? When your spouse sins against you are you glad to be married to that person and have the privilege of working together through that difficulty? Or do you feel disappointed with the failures of others, especially if against you? Is it hard for you to forgive others because you aren't sure that they are sorry or wanting to change? When people repeatedly fail, neglect or hurt you do feel frustrated, disappointed, or angry? When others hurt you do you tend to feel cold and distance yourself from them? Do you get frustrated or disappointed with your children? Are you afraid that your children will make you look bad in public? Are you afraid to be seen around the wrong kind of people? Are you glad to get away from pushy or complaining Christians? Do you worry about what people think of you at church? Do you tip at restaurants based on how good the service is? Are you quick to complain about bad service or the failures of others? Do you get angry, frustrated, disappointed, or depressed about your own failures? All the actions above are symptoms of a choice you made in the moment. If you have unmerited favor and zero merit in the equation with another person, then you can't possibly feel disappointed, frustrated, angry, cold, unforgiving, bitter, distant, or worried over the failures of others. It is impossible. You can lie to yourself and tell yourself that I am wrong, but if you aren't keeping score with that person, then there is no bad score to keep and thus no bad score to worry about. Do you get it? By the way, the only good score is perfection. By that I am a failure. How about you? I am so glad that my score is Jesus.

God is the Only Good Scorekeeper


The reason you feel horrible about the other person's sin against you is because you have usurped God job as scorekeeper. No person has a right to be the scorekeeper of others. Our job is to always notice how God is keeping score. God is always delighting in that Christian who hurt you. If you have unmerited favor in the equation, and no merit, then Jesus' death is always in view in the equation and you will always be looking over God's shoulder at His scorecard and will not only be at peace with what you see but you will share in God's delight--even while you are being sinned against. We all are together on that same scorecard as dearly loved and free from merit-measuring by the merit of Christ on the cross. When a person sins against you and you are looking at God's scorecard, then you will rejoice in the blood of Christ that has freed that person from all condemnation. In all honesty, all your misery about relationships is cause by you complaining to God about the way he keeps score. It is true for me, too. I have a low tolerance for misery and seek to always keep my eye on God's scorecard no matter what happens in life. 

The Big Lie


The big lie is that unmerited favor is the door into a good relationship with God but that after that at least some merit is required to maintain the relationship--or to keep God happy, to put it more crudely. If God is ever disappointed with you as a Christian then He still has a merit relationship with you as a person. Of course your bad behavior is evil, and of course God notices it. But you are not your behavior. This is a careful distinction to make in order to thrive in relationships and to avoid ruining them. I am glad that all Christians are always in our identity even when we forget it, even when we are asleep, and even if we get dementia in old age. Do you see yourself in your identity of having a relationship of pure unmerited favor with God? Do you see your behavior as separate from your identity? Bad behavior simply results from looking away from God's scorecard. Practice thinking this way about yourself and then begin thinking it about all the Christians you know--especially the most obnoxious ones--and you may be surprised at how much you enjoy other Christians even while they are sinning against you.