Monday, June 26, 2017


Is Grace Unmerited Favor?

Christians often and rightly say that grace is unmerited favor. This is a beautiful declaration. However, we Christians easily get tricked into forgetting grace when we we look at our relationship with God and with other people. To say that Christians have a relationship of unmerited favor with God means that merited favor has no place in that relationship. 

What Is Merited Favor?

Merited favor means that some personal performance is in the equation of the relationship. If my wife has to perform properly in order to avoid my displeasure, then I perceive her as needing to merit my favor, in part or in whole. If I were her employer that would be fine, but good personal relationships are free from merit. Since it is never good to lower the standards of goodness, merit in a personal relationship would necessitate moral perfection. Let's be real: none of us are perfect. Thus merit cannot be part of a good personal relationship.  Is a personal relationship about doing good things?

The Symptom of Merited Favor

In your relationships with other people, do you have check lists for them--do you require them to merit your favor? If you say that you don't because it is not good, then it seems reasonable that you would want to know when you violate your own principle. Here is the symptom that reveals that you (or someone else) have been tricked to include merited favor in a relationship. I would like to approach this from a different angle to increase clarity. Have you ever had others irritated, impatient, frustrated, or angry with you for something you did wrong? Of course your failure was not good, but did you appreciate the other person's reaction? We all have been on the receiving end of such treatment and know that it is wrong. But it is also wrong when we have these reactions. And these reactions have only one source: some flawed human faithfulness is perceived to be in the equation of the relationship--some check list must be met--some work done--satisfaction is not in God's goodness alone. Remembering to exclude flawed human faithfulness from the relationship creates peace with God and peace of heart in the moment. It is good to do good and it is good to be faithful, but it is never good to find satisfaction in sin, which is what you are doing when you perceive flawed human faithfulness to be a part of a good relationship. Sin is any violation of moral goodness. Let's be honest: human faithfulness is always flawed and thus is not good. So why not exclude merited favor from relationships? Faithfulness is good and necessary to put our minds at ease. But whose faithfulness? Perceive your relationships through the lens of God's faithfulness and goodness and you will be free to notice human sin in a razor sharp way with no bad reactions.

Does Merited Favor Belong in Parenting?

 Have you ever cringed when observing parents express disappointment, frustration, anger, or harshness toward their children? Did you ever receive such treatment from your parents? Was it helpful to you in learning love, forgiveness, trust, and good behavior? Hardly. Parents are entrusted with the lives of children and given the great privilege of helping those children learn to understand life, goodness, and how to thrive in relationships. Children are born with physical and moral senses that are immature and need development. They need to learn to walk and talk. This is a natural process. In the same way, it is a natural process to learn to navigate the moral world. And that process is shepherded by parents, relatives, and extended community. It doesn't happen in a vacuum. Good parenting is about shepherding a child's heart, realizing that right thinking results in right living. 

It is tragic when parents fail to realize that right behavior flows naturally out of right thinking and bad behavior flows naturally out of bad thinking. It takes practice for parents to notice bad behavior and not take that bad behavior personally. "How dare that child not do what I say." Alert parents will have been preparing themselves by applying this principle to themselves first and then to other people. This is intuitive knowledge and one need not be a Christian to grasp it. Personal maturity is skillfulness in applying this principle in its all-encompassing application to life. Identifying the principle clearly, helps us evaluate and understand our experiences and reactions. Because bad behavior is bad, it is so very easy to get distracted from the principle and then criticize human behavior as the problem. But the root cause of bad behavior is bad thinking--always. 

It is also tragic when parents don't realize that a child is born with a moral sense that needs nurturing. I think and teach that frustration, impatience, manipulation, rage, and abuse are always out of place in parenting, as well as in the rest of life. These reactions are the natural fruit of the parent being offended that the child is not conforming to the parent's wishes. This is a symptom of forgetting the child's common humanity, moral sense, and tendency to make excuses. All of us make excuses, so why be surprised if a child does it? The child's moral sense is very real and touches all aspects of goodness. It is a great privilege for a parent to help a child learn to be honest about that moral sense and to learn to honor it and not suppress it. A child is not his behavior. Realizing and remembering this frees a parent to have a compassionate, tender, and firm response while identifying clearly the wrongness of the child's bad behavior. A parent has no authority to dispense merited favor just as I have no authority to dispense merited favor in any personal relationship I have. The parent is not the child's sin manager, but rather an advocate to help the child learn that sin is managed fully and solely at the cross. Therefore, being disappointed (frustrated, impatient, angry) with your child is always wrong because it is a sign that you perceive that your child needs to merit your favor. 

Where Does God Find Satisfaction?

God is not an impersonal force or vending machine. As the creator of the universe, He is the source of what it means to be a person. He is the ultimate person--good, perfect, and righteous in all ways. We are made in his image, but that image has been distorted by human pride. Since God is a divine person and good, he desires a good personal relationship with people. To be a Christian means to have such a relationship. God initiates and maintains the relationship without our help, otherwise our flawed faithfulness would distort the relationship. 

God does want something from us, and it is good for Him to want it. But it is not our faithfulness, goodness, obedience, or works, for they are all flawed. If you are a Christian then you have done only one thing perfectly, the only thing that a person can do that is not a work. It is to rest in the work of another person--Christ. Paul declares this explicitly in Romans 4:5: "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness." Christian faith is confidence, trust, rest, and satisfaction with Christ's faithfulness as all one needs to be in a good relationship with God. Our initial conversion was a pure rest in Christ's faithfulness. Jeremiah anticipated the Day of Pentecost when he declared: "I will fill the souls of the priests with abundance and my people will be satisfied with My goodness, declares the Lord." (Jeremiah 31:14) To be satisfied with God's goodness excludes finding satisfaction in your own work or in the work of other flawed humans. Is God fully satisfied with His goodness in the work of Christ on the cross? Are you fully satisfied with God's goodness? Isaiah also anticipated unmerited favor flowing naturally from the cross when he prophesied, "Lord, You will establish peace for us, since You have also performed for us all our work." (Isaiah 26:12) Do you see peace as a fruit of God doing all the work for you and other people? Conversion is entrance into this new mindset, but it is easy to revert back to the corrupt mindset of seeking some satisfaction in flawed human faithfulness.

Christians are Royal Children of God

All Christians have the great privilege of being adopted into God's family. In Christ we are God's royal and righteous children. Our righteousness is real and present, but it is not our own; it is the righteousness of Christ. He has taken our identity as lawbreakers under the law and given us His identity as children under the authority of grace. This is very difficult for us democratically-minded people to understand. Read here the testimony of a Jordanian Muslim attorney friend who did not become a Christian. He understands what grace means at a deep level because he has a real king with real authority. He told me that his impossible dream was to be adopted into the royal family. He added that if that came true, then he would be above the law and free to do whatever he wanted. He then made the amazing declaration that he would be so happy for what the king had done for him that he would never do anything wrong again. I pressed him and was finally able to shake his confidence. He admitted that he might do something wrong if he forgot what the king had done for him. He saw that remembrance of that great gift would motivate him to do good always. I suggest that this is what the New Testament teaches Christianity to be: that the death of Christ is what turns the world right side up to provide both a way of royal adoption and a way of good, pure, and sufficient motivation for good works, where they flow naturally and effortlessly out of a vision of love received. Does this seem to you to be too good to be true? 

Is God Ever Disappointed, Frustrated, or Angry with Christians?

Forgetfulness by an adopted royal child can have bad consequences, as my Muslim friend stated. But that forgetfulness and its consequences are not part of the relationship with one's king because human performance is excluded. This is not to deny that consequences can be tragic, but it is to establish satisfaction with the goodness of God as the center of the universe. "God passed over the sins previously committed so that he might demonstrate His righteousness at the present time [the cross]." (Rom.3:25) The cross resolves all evil not just the small stuff. God calls all people to be satisfied with that resolution and He leads the way in being satisfied with it Himself. If God is ever disappointed, frustrated, or angry with a Christian, then He is not satisfied with sin-bearing love at the cross and He perceives merited favor to be in the relationship. There is no way around this fact. In theory, merited favor has had no place in my parenting of my five children. I was tricked to put it in sometimes, but God is a perfect parent and thus never puts it in. This means that God has no disappointment, frustration, impatience, or anger toward any Christian. NONE! If you disagree, then there are two options: either I need to be corrected, or you are unwittingly reading the Bible upside down. If you were, would you like to know it?

Does the Lord Discipline Christians?

The Bible clearly teaches that God disciplines Christians. Have you noticed that the Bible also clearly teaches that God disciplined Israel under law? Discipline simply means training. The question we need to ask is this. What is the purpose of the training? In the Bible the purpose is clearly something moral and not anything like skillfulness at some musical instrument or sport. This leaves only two options for understanding what the purpose is: 1) to take sins seriously and control them, and 2) to grow in skillfulness in seeing life through the lens of righteousness (perfection). If my observation of scripture is true, and my Muslim friend's understanding of motivation is true, then sin by a Christian is always a result of forgetting righteousness. Therefore the two options are not equally valid. The latter is true, real, and good, while the former is counterfeit. If the latter is true then the former plays into the hands of Satan. Satan appears as an angel of light; he is the father of lies; he is a master counterfeiter. And he seeks to deceive us with his counterfeits. Do you ever get tricked by them? I do. What does he counterfeit? I have lived 85% of my Christian life, 33 years, in the den of master gospel counterfeiters. My Mormon culture uses Christian terminology and spins it to make life all about you becoming a better you, rather than about you getting a new identity as a royal righteous child in Christ. For Christians here, the conflict and contrast are very real. Still we get tricked sometimes. Paul declares in 2Cor. 11:15 (see the context of 11:3-15) that Satan counterfeits righteousness. 

Counterfeit Righteousness

I discuss the gospel with hundreds of Mormons annually. In a typical gospel conversation, a Mormon will tell me some or all of the following things about righteousness.

  • It is not good to sin, therefore we should try not to sin.
  • It is good to be righteous, therefore we need to try to be righteous.
  • Righteousness is trying.
  • God said to be perfect, which means that we need to try.
  • God doesn't expect perfection, only that we do our best.
  • It is unrealistic to stop all sins now, so we work on them one by one.
  • Repentance is a slow process of turning from sins and obeying God.
  • God forgives us for the sins we repent of.
  • God will not give you righteousness as a gift. You have to try to be obedient.
  • If you get righteousness as a gift, it will make you lazy. 
Do you see any counterfeits hidden in these statements? The focus is on me, my behavior, and my efforts. Merited favor is here. Mormons tell me that life is a process of learning to make right choices. They say that the discipline of the Lord is about getting people to be serious about their sins individually. All Satan's counterfeits are really just different nuances of the same thing: God's perfect goodness is turned into something manageable--something less than perfection. This is a suppression of righteousness (Rom. 1:18). It is fair to summarize the battle lines in my conversations with Mormons as identity versus behavior. They are striving to get their sinful thoughts and behaviors under control so as to be righteous. They openly declare to me that righteousness goes up and down with obedience and disobedience. They are their own sin managers. I declare to them that compared to Jesus we all are failures and therefore righteousness can only be perfection (all or nothing) and thus only available as a gift. This is the titanic struggle of the universe.  

Have you been tricked into the counterfeit thinking of my Mormon friends: that God's discipline is about controlling your individual sins? Of course your individual sins are bad, but the whole of your sins are bad. Of course it is good to be honest about your sins and take them seriously, but to be fully honest means that it is good for you to deal with them ALL immediately and simultaneously. Anything less is not good. Do you want to take them that seriously? Or do you want to be your own sin manager? You can't manage perfection, but Christ can and did at the cross. Also, your sins are not random actions. They are the simple result of perceiving life in a way that is not good. Read my articles on this: simplicity in Christ,  holiness as a way of seeing, obedience: success or trying? You sin only when you don't see life through the lens of righteousness (perfection as required and given freely as a gift). 

God's Discipline is Always About Righteousness

God's discipline is always about righteousness. The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians living between Pentecost and the destruction of the temple. They were under intense pressure from their Jewish culture to go back to the law. From beginning to end, Hebrews is a reminder of the simple gospel to weary Jewish Christians who were giving in to that pressure. They needed encouragement to stand firm and not be intimidated. They needed a long refresher course in the simplicity of the gospel that had come to them at Pentecost and freed them to be righteousness by the work of Christ without their own works. They needed to hear again that though sin is bad, going back to the law is tragic. The Law is all about externals as part of what it means to be fully acceptable before God. The whole letter is about this conflict over righteousness. Hebrews 12 is the go to passage in the Bible on God's discipline. Since this teaching is in this context, do you read discipline in light of this conflict, or as my Mormon friends do? For 25 years I read it as my Mormon culture does. I am living proof that it is very easy to get distracted from identity to behavior and not even notice having been distracted. I still prove it every day. Have you realized that you do it too? Therefore, according to the context of Hebrews, the sin that so easily entangles (12:1) is going back to the law. The race (12:1,2) is about always considering Jesus (His work as all we need). Endurance (12:1) is needed to not give in to the pressure to go back to the law. The sinners (12:3) who were applying the pressure were the super religious Jews, not the prostitutes and irreligious people. Resisting them (12:4) meant resisting going back to the law, not resisting doing bad things. Joy is absent or suppressed while one is not considering Jesus (12:11). Christians are righteous by faith alone; we have a new identity as righteous children in Christ independent of our behavior. God disciplines, or trains, us every waking moment in every situation, to be alert to remember what this identity means and to live out of that identity. God wants us to always see and evaluate every situation in light of His goodness, of righteousness as perfection, not some manageable performance expectation. He wants us to grow in wisdom, and His wisdom is skillfulness in the word of righteousness. (5:13-14) 

Israel was Disciplined to Righteousness as Perfection

The discipline of the Lord is first mentioned explicitly in Deuteronomy 4:36. "He let you hear His voice to discipline you; and on earth He let you see His great fire, and hear His words from the midst of the fire," Was God's word to them some form of do your best, try harder, or partial obedience? No. We see this earlier in the chapter. "You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you." (4:2) We also read, "It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to keep all this commandment." (6:25) "All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers." (8:2) Notice that God's word is inflexible--zero fudging by adding or taking away--it must be kept in full as it is. This means that God wanted Israel to keep their eye on His perfection and not compromise His perfection in thought, word, or deed. To be righteous required perfect obedience. The Old Testament is the record of God's compassion and Israel's dishonor of His perfect law. Their history is an ugly one. Finally Jesus arrived among them. He preached in such a way as to reestablish the honor of the law, that it required perfection. Israel hated that message and killed him for it. Jesus knows (taught, believed, understood) that God wants you and all people to keep all the commandments perfectly now and always, no matter the situation. If you don't believe this, by what authority do you compromise God's expectation of goodness and make it something manageable? 

Honesty About Sin

Let's be honest about sin. John declares that sin is lawlessness (dishonor of the law). (1John 3:4) In other words, sin is violation of goodness--any violation. Life is a spiritual battle to honor God's goodness. If you are not doing it fully, then you are not doing it, and you are a violator. God has brought resolution to this problem by making the cross the place where all sin has been put away by the sacrifice of Christ. (Hebrews 9:26) This concerns the power of sin as well as its guilt. The cross does not make people into robots. Rather it frees them to live in a good way, in a new identity in His righteousness without any need to find justification or satisfaction anywhere else--no matter how great the violation they commit, receive, or observe. God declares, and we all know, that it is not good to seek justification for any human failure in any human action. God is satisfied with Christ's sacrifice of Himself. Therefore, why be satisfied with a vision of God's discipline that does not honor God's goodness (perfection) or His satisfaction with Christ? Let Jesus be the sin manager of the world. Embrace His clarity about sin: that only perfection is good. Embrace His righteousness (perfection as required and given freely as a gift) as the point of His training for you and all other people. Embrace forgetfulness or rejection of righteousness as the cause of all sin. Embrace remembrance of righteousness as the place of restoration, healing, life, truth, peace, and joy. Let's together embrace and celebrate satisfaction with God's goodness and His good training of us. 

God's discipline or training is all about growth in skillfulness in seeing Jesus as ALL our righteousness, holiness, and redemption--our wisdom from God.

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