Archive for the ‘grace’ Category

two-boys-workingThere is a slavery on the near side of sonship.  (Galatians 4:7)

And there is a slavery on the far side of sonship.  (Galatians 1:10)

On the near side it’s death.

On the far side it’s life.

On the near side it’s flesh.

On the far side it’s Spirit.

On the near side it’s your righteousness on show.

On the far side it’s Christ’s righteousness in you.

On the near side you don’t know who you are without it, so you step it up.

On the far side you do know who you are without it, and you keep in step.


There is no way from slavery to sonship.

And there’s no way to true slavery except sonship.


All of which means…

We must refuse to be slaves ascending to higher degrees of slavery.

We must look away from any schemes of progressive slavery.

We must proclaim sonship.

And not because we’re not into works.

If we want true works, we must strip away works.

We must be left bare in the presence of God with nothing but Christ for our justification.

We must know who we are without our works – sinners clothed in Christ.

We must know our sonship not in ourselves but in the Son.  This means by grace alone.

Having contributed nothing, we belong entirely.

And now, in Him, we can do no other than gladly take our place in the Father’s business.

But it is the Father’s business.

The only gateway to true work is sonship.

The only Gate is the Son.

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(55 mins!)

Statements people make about faith:

“I wish I had your faith”

“As you know I could never share your faith”

“Faith is believing something you know isn’t real.”

“You just got to have faith.”

John 1:10-13 – Faith is recognizing and receiving

John 2:11 – Faith is responding to the glory of Jesus

Dutiful Derek

Derek’s Father says: “We’re going to visit the Grand Canyon and you’ll be awestruck!”

Derek says: “Do I have to be awestruck??”

Derek’s Father says: “One day you’ll meet a girl and you’ll fall in love?”

Derek says: “Do I have to fall in love?”

Derek’s Father says: We’re going to church to hear about the glory of Jesus and we’ll believe in Jesus.

Derek says: “Do I have to believe in Jesus?”

That’s a funny question isn’t it?

Faith is like being awestruck or falling in love – it must happen if you’re recognizing the glory of Christ!

John 3:13-16 – Faith is looking away from self to Jesus (cf Brazen Serpent)

John 20:24-31 – Faith is meeting the risen Jesus

The Christian life is a life of continuing faith

Through the Bible.

Faith is not something in me that I need to drum up

Faith is not a leap into the dark – it’s stepping into the light

In fact it’s being in the dark and having someone switch the light on

Faith is not a hoop you have to jump through to get something else: salvation

Galatians 2:17-3:5

Faith is receiving Jesus – it’s a life-long love affair.

Galatians 5:6

It begins by being passive with God and bears fruit in love for others

1 Samuel 17       

Faithless, fearful Israel are saved by their Faithful, Fearless King.

Their unbelief turns to faith when they see His victory: they shout and advance

Every day we need to same: to look to our Champion, to shout and advance.

The life of faith is a continual looking to Christ.

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cartmanThis follows on from my series “Why be good?

Kath has been writing about obedience and asking what’s helpful in seeking to love an obedient life.  It’s a good question, because people in the Bible seem pretty thrilled by the idea. The Psalmist sees the law as eminently loveable (Psalm 119:97), Paul calls it “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Jude, Peter, James and Paul all introduce themselves as “Slaves of Christ” in their letters.  They love obedience!  They have seen an awesomely attractive vision of life and they’ve submitted themselves to it with joyful abandon.

We don’t like obedience – as a rule. (If it were a suggestion, we’d be much more amenable).

Why don’t we like it?

  1. We’re not any good at it. I’m always inclined to hate something I’m bad at. (I’m afraid there’s no real solution to this one – we’ll always be really bad at obedience.  All of us.  Until we die. But it’s we who are bad, not the law).
  2. Obedience feels like it’s taking us away from the good life. We imagine that God has set up an arbitrary set of hoops for us to jump through. We imagine he’s not really interested in goodness, in justice, in flourishing, in cosmic shalom.  We fear that he just sets little tests for the world in order to sort out the pious wheat from the irreligious chaff.  It rarely occurs to us that God has laid out “The Good Life” for us.  We consider it to be merely “The Hard Life.”
  3. Law sounds like the opposite of love. Somehow someone convinced us that law and love are on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm.  They must have had their bibles firmly shut at that point because law and love go together everywhere you look in Scripture. But, according to the caricature, over there are law people obsessing over irrelevant duties, but over here, we’re just liberated lovers, leading with our big, warm hearts. In this world, the word obedience definitely belongs over there. But notice too – in this world, both sides of the supposed chasm are far from self-forgetful gospel faith.
  4. Works seem like the opposite of faith (rather than the fruit). In our minds, we set up the difference between gospel faith and legalistic religion like this: YOU are faithlessly busy.  I am trustingly inactive.  God prefers my internal “faith” to your external “works”.  Notice though, that this understanding is actually Christless – it makes me the Saviour, through my cognitive contribution.  But the gospel is that we’re saved in spite of our inactivity and in spite of our busyness – we’re saved by Christ. It’s not really our faith that saves us (as though God prefers internal mental assent to external physical acts!) It’s Christ who saves us and sets us on our feet as children of the same heavenly Father.  Now that we’re in the family, how could obedience be a dirty word?  All of a sudden obedience makes sense.
  5. Obeying God seems besides the point, perhaps even Pharasaical. If, in the gospel, my goodness is irrelevant to my standing with God, we very quickly ask the question “Why be good?”  We rarely round on the question and ask an equally incredulous: “Why on earth be bad??” (We don’t react that way because we’ve bought into lie no. 2 – we think that badness is a kind of delightful naughtiness). Positively speaking, it rarely occurs to us to answer the “Why be good?” question with an emphatic: “Because goodness is good!”  Or “Because Father knows best”.  Or “Because the life of Christ works through us!”  Or “Because there’s a world out there to bless!”

Once the incentive of heavenly reward is absent we seem to lose whatever interest in obedience we might have had.  But that’s not a sign that we’re too focused on the gospel.  The very opposite – it’s a sign that we haven’t allowed the gospel to properly re-calibrate our thinking.

It’s the legalist who sees obedience as an arbitrary set of hoops to jump through.  Legalists are like the older brother of Luke 15 – happy to prove themselves by jumping through the hoops. The licentious are like the younger brother of Luke 15 – happy to find themselves by casting such burdens away.  But both of them completely misunderstand obedience.  We should think of obedience as one way – a beautifully attractive way – of characterizing ‘the father’s house.’  Yes it is a place of love, blessing, security, celebration, joy, mercy, peace, etc, etc.  But it’s also a place where the beautiful will of the Father is done.

On this understanding, legalists are like the older son, self-righteous in the field. The licentious are like the younger son, lost in the far-country. The true position is to be a sinner robed, in the father’s household.  But just imagine that younger son, the morning after the feast.  With what eagerness he will serve his father now!  He’ll get it wrong.  He’ll have to learn. But obedience in the father’s house is not a dirty word, it’s the very atmosphere of home.

It’s true that there is a slavery on the near side of sonship and that is spiritual death.  But there’s a slavery on the far side of sonship and it is life and peace.

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Reading Acts 14 and 15 this morning. The interplay of mission, theology and grace really struck me.

Paul and Barnabas go throughout Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Pisidia, Pamphylia and Perga, preaching “the word of God’s grace” (14:3); “the gospel” (v7); “good news” (v15); “the gospel” (v21); “the word” (v25).  When they return to Antioch they call the church together for a mission report: “they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” (v27)  Everyone’s thrilled.

But… you knew the next chapter had to begin with a but… “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  (Acts 15:1)

Familiar pattern eh?  Good news of great joy is preached to all the people.  But the people of God are the biggest obstacle to the good news.

Paul and Barnabas are incensed and trace the rot right back to Jerusalem.  When they get there some believers of the sect of the Pharisees repeat the heresy “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (v5)

Here’s my question: How long would these Judaizers have remained preaching their false gospel if it wasn’t for the missionary activity of Paul and Barnabas?  The Gentiles come in and force the Jewish believers to rethink what it means to be saved and belong to God’s people.  It stirs things up.

Now it’s true that once the matter is raised in Jerusalem, the council is quick to denounce this theology as “a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” (v10)  But before the agitation of missionary activity and new converts, it was a yoke they all seemed to be tolerating.  Legalism had become a comfortable yoke while-ever they remained ‘at home.’

But once the disciples saw the good news spreading and giving life they saw their anti-gospel living in a new light.  When they saw the nations rejoicing in the Lord – even these unwashed Gentiles – they were forced to see the radical simplicity of the Lord’s salvation.  In the light of a life-giving gospel their life-sapping theology was seen for the legalism it had always been.

Here’s an application that springs to mind… the best way to fight slave-making legalism within the church is to preach the life-giving gospel outside the church.  When those who are far from God come in, only the true gospel can cope.  The law can never handle the mess of radical conversions.  Evangelistic churches need to be gracious churches.  In this way theology is refined in the fires of mission.

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At Transformission Mike Reeves spoke of life “in the flesh” and “the spirit of slavery” that dominates those who are in Adam.

When you think of the realm of “the flesh” (or the “sinful nature” – NIV), what do you imagine?  So often our minds run to ‘the naughty things’.  Gross disobedience.  Licentious living.

That might be an outworking of the flesh.  But in Romans 8:15, Paul charactierizes life in the flesh as bound by a spirit of slavery.  This spirit is contrasted with the Spirit of adoption.  It’s whatever is opposed to our gracious adoption by a generous Father.  Similarly in Galatians 4, Paul makes the contrast between slaves and sons and the slavery is all about bondage “under the law”.  In Philippians 3 the horrific evil of “those dogs” – the circumcision sect – is that, through their legalism, they were “putting confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:1-11).

Life in the flesh might be about sex.  But – even worse – it might be about circumcision!  Vain self-confidence can be found in the party animal.  But how much more can such vanity exist in the champion of temperance.  And with the added stench of self-righteousness!

We can be distracted from much bigger battles when our struggles with “the flesh” merely focus on “bad behaviours.”  As John Gerstner has said: “The thing that really separates us from God is not so much our sin, but our damnable good works.”

The devilish thing about religious carnality is that it doesn’t appear to us as carnality.  Instead the “spirit of slavery” makes us toil away at our “damnable good works”.  And just as the licentious sinner gets less and less of a kick out of their drug of choice, so the self-righteous prude finds less and less goodness to take pride in.

Take the example of 18th century moralist Samuel Johnson.  At Transformission, Mike read to us from his prayer journals.  Each entry is a window onto life “in the flesh.”  Here is the diary of a carnal man:

September 18, 1738 – Oh lord, enable me by your Grace to redeem the time which I have spent in sloth, vanity and wickedness, to lead a new life in your faith, fear and love; and finally to obtain everlasting life.

1757 – Almighty God, enable me, from this instant, to amend my life that I may not finally lose the things eternal.

1759 – enable me to shake off idleness and sloth

1761 – I have resolved till I am afraid to resolve again. Yet, hoping in God, I steadfastly purpose to lead a new life.

1764 – I have made no reformation; I have lived totally useless, more sensual in thoughts, and more addicted to wine and meat. Grant me, O God, to amend my life. My purposes, from this time, to avoid idleness. To rise early. To read the Scriptures.

A few months later: I have now spent 55 years in resolving; O God, Grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions. I resolve to rise early, not later than six if I can.

1765 – I purpose to rise at eight, Because though I shall not rise early, it will be much earlier than I now rise, for I often lie till two.

1775. When I look back upon resolutions of improvement, Which have year after year been made and broken, Why do I try to resolve again? I try, because reformation is necessary. I try, in hope of the help of God.

It is pitiable, laughable and tragic.  This is what “the spirit of slavery” does to a person.  And it is every bit as fleshly as the debauched hedonist.  Only Christ can save.

Listen to Mike’s excellent talks here.

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Check out this explanation of Mormonism.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Too much to mention right?

There’s the teaching of faith as a thing contributing towards salvation.  There’s the classification of Joseph Smith as a prophet. There’s the elevation of personal revelation to a position effectively superior to the Scriptures.  There’s our pre-existence, for goodness sakes!

Now all of these things are troubling and profoundly mistaken.  But there’s something else that towers above those heresies.  It’s their view of Christ.  There He stands – a benevolent well-wisher presiding over our path towards salvation.  This impotent, essentially irrelevant, Christ has been replaced by us.  We are the ones who exist with the Father, who come to earth, pass the test and ascend back to the Father.  We are Christ, working salvation in our own person.  And who is Christ?  An encourager, an example, an empathiser.  But essentially it’s all down to us.

Perhaps it’s easy to spot the errors of Mormonism, but what about our own Christianity?  What is it that makes our gospel any different?  Is Jesus for us the achiever of salvation?  Is He the One who, not only blazes the trail of salvation, but also carries His people with Him back to the Father?  Does Jesus merely make us save-able, or does He save us?  Does He unite Himself to our humanity and bring us on His heart back to God, or does He wish us well from a distance?

We might feel that we have rejected the Mormon gospel because we’ve streamlined the path of salvation.  For us there’s no belief in the prophet Joseph Smith or “the covenant in the house of the Lord” and yet we essentially believe salvation to be a path that we tread. 

Let’s not be reformed Mormons.  Let’s be Christians.  Let’s be those who believe in incarnation – the Lord Himself has come from heaven, taken our flesh, trod the path of salvation and ascended back to the Father.  He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  And to have Him by faith is to have salvation.

Jesus does not preside over the path to salvation.  He is the path of salvation.  He is its beginning and end.  And we are not those who are on their way – we are in the Way.  That’s true Christianity.  Everything else is a cultish heresy.

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I’ll be using this illustration tonight…

Perhaps some of you remember the 1966 World Cup Final.  Bobby Moore lifting the trophy for England.  You might remember just before that moment.  Moore realizes he’s about to meet the Queen, wearing her immaculate white gloves.  And he realizes, probably for the first time that day, his hands are dirty.  Do you remember him, walking up the steps of Wembley, wiping his hands on his football shirt?  Then he wiped them on the velvet draping before shaking hands with the Queen.

If he wasn’t meeting the Queen he wouldn’t have given two hoots about his hands.  Who cares, he’s just won the world cup.  But in the presence of purity, that’s when his uncleanness mattered.

The King of kings comes to you and offers Himself.  Not just a hand of friendship – both hands nailed to a cross.  Not just to bestow a trophy, but to embrace you and bring you into the life and love of  God!  And maybe you never really thought about it before.  But when you see His outstretched hands, you realize, “My hands are unclean.”  Normally you don’t think about it, but when the King of Love moves towards you, you realize, “I’m not clean.  My heart is not pure. I live in a broken world with a broken heart and a broken life.”  If you don’t feel like that, you don’t really get who Jesus is.  He’s the King! And He’s pure.  And if you don’t realize that your hands are unclean, you don’t know yourself, and you don’t know Jesus.  But if you know Jesus, let me tell you – He wants to embrace you.

Bobby Moore’s efforts to clean himself up didn’t really work.  He just smeared the mud around a bit.  You know what saved the day?  Not Bobby Moore wiping his hands, but the Queen thrusting out her hand.  That was the really significant gesture.  The Queen didn’t flinch from Bobby Moore’s dirty hands and Jesus doesn’t flinch from you.  The Queen got her gloves dirty and welcomed Bobby Moore.  And a billion times more importantly, Jesus got Himself dirty to embrace you.  He opened His arms wide on the cross and He took your sin and shame.  That’s what this King is like.  He’s the King who the dirty run to.  Because through His death He gives us cleansing, forgiveness and a stunning welcome into the very life of God.

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I wrote this two years ago in response to the views of an influential minister who I respect greatly.  I haven’t kept up with the minister’s views on this subject and he might be saying different things now so I’ve removed reference to him specifically.  But I think the issue is still very much out there in the evangelical ether, so I’ll address the issue more generally…

I long for church communities that are Christ-centred, grace-filled, all-of-life and intentionally missional.  I love ministers and ministries that emphasize these things.  But let me raise one caution.  It’s common in such circles to affirm church as an on-going family life and to deny that church is an event.

I can understand, to some extent, why language of “event” grates on people.  It can seem like an ungodly waste of resources to turn Sunday morning into a grand performance.  So true.  I’ve heard people speak in hushed tones about some gold standard of sermon preparation – an hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit.  Yowsers!  If that’s the cost of gathering around word and sacrament then I can well understand the desire to re-balance the expenditure of resources.

But there’s something deeper to discuss than the re-allocation of resources or the degree of formality to our meetings.  What I want to establish is the absolute necessity of the event for the life of church.  Church is not just family, it is also an event and irreducibly so.  I’ll say it that starkly because I know how popular it is to speak of church as ongoing-missional-community in opposition to chuch as event.

Church has its being in becoming.  It ever becomes what it is as it hears God’s word.  In this way church is the community called out (ekklesia) to listen to its risen Lord in the proclamation of word and sacrament.  This is the centre of the life of the community.

Let me just take one Scriptural example from Paul.  We are one body because we all share in the one bread (1 Cor 10:17). That is pretty stunning language – and it’s very ‘eventist’.  Here is a consummation of one-body-ness in which we become what we are. The event and the on-going life of the body are inter-dependent.

Think of marriage.  The covenant reality is that husband and wife are one flesh.  But there is an event in which they become one flesh (if you were Presbyterian you might even call it covenant renewal!).

It’s commanded in Scripture (cf 1 Cor 7) and it takes time and effort and a measure of ritual and it’s irreducibly an event.  Of course the degree of ritual and cost and time-expenditure will vary according to many factors.  But to imagine I can think of an ongoing covenant life without also thinking about the one-flesh event is a big danger in marriage.

And, by parallel, church life needs to be maintained by consciously enjoyed, anticipated and ritualised “events” in our church life together.  We can’t do without them.  And however much it’s necessary to speak of day-in, day-out community life we dare not lose language of event either.  The old reformed ecclesiologies speak of gathering around word and sacrament.  They didn’t forget that we were family, but they did highlight that there were foundational “events” at the centre of church life.

So we say Yes to shared life, Yes to Christ-centred community.  But the way in which our community is “centred” around Christ takes a certain form.  The centre is an actual, concrete centre around which we orient ourselves.  As Christ’s community therefore we order ourselves around the place where Christ is given to us. And He is given to us supremely in word and sacrament.

Therefore we must maintain language of “event”.  As we do so we are upholding two related concerns:

1) We are communities of grace.

Christians keen to ditch “event” language are usually big on “grace.”  They commonly reject rituals in the name of gospel grace.  But I would urge caution here.  If we want to be communities of grace we need to orient ourselves around where Christ is given to us, not primarily around what Christ would have us do.  To be a community of grace requires us to centre on events.

2) We are communities of proclamation.

Where we honour the “event” of Church, we honour “proclamation”.  While our community life preaches to the world (John 13:35; 17:21) I’d want to co-ordinate this to a centre of verbal proclamation that constitutes and re-constitutes the community.


I’m well aware that many who reject the word “event” bang a big and important drum for “grace” and “proclamation”.  But I want to say, “grace” and “proclamation” requires “events.”  We must never lose our centre.


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This time of year I always feel guilty.  When it comes to the end of May and the weather turns nice, there’s a feeling I get.  A rising panic has dawned on me ever since I was a teenager.  You know the feeling – you step out into the sunshine feeling free and all of a sudden it hits you: I SHOULD BE REVISING!

Are you the same?

I haven’t sat any exams for years.  But the weather turns nice and instantly I feel burdened by the weight of exam season.

It’s a horrible feeling.  And it’s exactly like living under law.  Let me list some similarities between being in “Revision Mode” and living “under the law.”

In revision mode…

  1. You never know if you’ve done enough.  Until you see the exam you can’t know what you should have been revising.  Therefore, no matter how much revision you do, you could always be doing more.
  2. If you blow off your revision and enjoy the sunshine you never really enjoy it.  The knowledge of your coming exams overshadows any fun you might have.
  3. If you stay in and study you spend the whole time feeling like you’re missing out.  Everyone else is having the summer of their lives, and you’re stuck in the library.
  4. Negotiating the exam becomes the whole point of study.  Not learning.  Not love of the subject.  Everything is reduced to these arbitrary hoops through which you must jump.
  5. Techniques become almost as important as understanding.  In exams, the ability to conceal ignorance is every bit as useful as actually knowing stuff.   Being good at exams can be worth more than being good at your subject.
  6. The end results for which you aim are all about personal advancement – getting the job or university place that’s best for you.

Living under the law is exactly the same.

  1. The relentless drum beat that drives you is guilt.  ‘Do more, do more, do more’ says the law.  And more is never enough.
  2. You can ignore the law’s demands and ‘cut loose’ in sin, but unless you’ve been set free by Christ you won’t enjoy it.  There’ll always be the lurking feeling that you should be shackled in religion.
  3. On the other hand, you can clutch those shackles to yourself in self-righteous pride, but only you know how jealous you are of the cool kids cutting loose.  Resentment is rising in you, even (and especially!) as you resolve to be good.
  4. Loving your neighbour in self-forgetful joy is not your heart-beat.  Instead you need to be told what to do.  In measurable, manageable, bite-sized chunks.
  5. Concealing your badness is just as important as showing your goodness.  Keeping up appearances is everything.
  6. The end goal is not Christ’s love shared, but your status secured.  Your goodness is all about you.  Which means it’s not actually good after all.
What’s the answer?
Well at some point our exams come to an end.  There’s that beautiful moment when the invigilator says: “Please finish the sentence you’re on…  PENS DOWN!”  And right there – the summer holidays begin.  What a moment!

In Galatians 3 Paul likens the Law to “a strict governess in charge of us.” (Gal 3:24, JB Phillips).  But now we’ve graduated. Christ has passed our exams for us and earned us the A* (Gal 4:4).  The Law has done its job for us and now goes into honourable retirement (Gal 3:25).  We can still learn much from its wisdom, we can still consult the old lesson plans.  But we’re not in revision mode.  It can’t give us a detention.  And its grades no longer apply.

School’s out for summer!  We’re free.

Like the graduate who picks up a book for love of learning, now we can actually pursue the life of Christ without fear, pride, pressure or guilt.   Now that there’s nothing we have to do we’re finally in a position to actually do good!  Now that all judgement has been cleared away, altruism is possible!  For the first time in our lives genuine love can begin.

The Christian lives under the banner of John 19:30: “It is finished!”  So no more “revision mode” spirituality.  You’ve passed the test – with flying colours.  Let the summer begin.

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Isaiah warned us and Jesus repeated it – it’s hypocritical to honour the Lord with your lips while your heart is far from Him (Isaiah 29:13; Mark 15:8).  It’s something I pray about every Sunday, “As I preach or pray or sing, may my lips and my heart be set on the Lord Jesus.”

But there’s another danger.  We can react the other way and disdain anything ‘external’.  We say to the world: “I reject ‘works’, I’m all about the inward life.”  And so we’re constantly taking our spiritual temperatures.  We neglect ritual (as though it always leads to ritualism).  And we start to think of faith as a thing – the one really meritorious work!

The faith-works polarity becomes, in our thinking, an internal-external polarity.  Internal – good.  External – bad.  We start to imagine that mental acts are good old grace while physical acts are nasty old law.

But that’s not how it is.  There can be a crippling legalism of the heart (ever felt it?) and there can be a wonderful liberation in gospel rituals (ever experienced that?).

Take communion.


No but seriously, take it.   Because here is a gospel ritual which, because it is external, brings home the grace of Jesus all the stronger.

We are not (or at least we should not be!) memorialists. Jesus has not left us a mental duty with the bread and wine as mere thought prompters.  We have been left a meal.  To chew.  And to gulp down.  There are motions to go through.  And they are the same motions we performed last week.  And the week before that.

But here’s the thing – these motions are means of God’s grace and not in spite of their externalism but because they are external.  Here is a gift that comes to you from outside yourself.  And it comes apart from your internal state.  But nonetheless it is for you – sinner that you are.

So take it regardless of whether your heart is white-hot with religious zeal.  Take it regardless of whether you are really, really mindful of the gravity of it all.  And as the minister prays the prayer of consecration and your mind wanders… oh well.  Don’t ask him to start again.  Go through the motions I say.  Your heart is meant to catch up with the motions.  That’s why the motions were given.  Because our hearts are weak and not to be trusted.

So allow the Word to come to you from beyond.  Allow Him to love you first. Don’t disdain ‘going through the motions.’  For many on a Sunday –  those grieving or sick or gripped by depression – they need to be carried along by these motions.  And for all of us – if we’re going to be people of grace, we need these externals.

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After yesterday’s post I remembered this sparkling gem from Mike:

We are not saved by grace

John Bunyan believed that Christians are saved by grace. Of course. It was what everyone seemed to say. The thought left him pretty miserable, though. In fact, when he really thought about it, it left him profoundly depressed. God is gracious, he knew: but how gracious, exactly? And that made him wonder: ‘my peace would be in and out, sometimes twenty times a day; comfort now, and trouble presently’…

…For all that we speak of grace, and however strongly we speak of it, we will remain prisoners of spiritual insecurity for as long as we imagine that we are independent islands. And rightly so: all spiritual blessings are to be found in Christ alone. Just read Ephesians 1 for an avalanche of verses to prove that. There is no hint of salvation to be found anywhere else. God only ever blesses through Christ. He is the vine of God’s blessing. And the only way to be blessed is to be grafted into him.

It’s only short, read the whole thing.

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Recently I read an internet discussion on how much “grace” we should preach.  You know, as opposed to preaching the life of the kingdom, the demands of discipleship, missional living, that kind of thing.  One side said they’d like to see more grace, another side said they’d like to see less.

Perhaps you’re thinking “I know which side Glen would take.”  Don’t be so sure.  I think they are falling off either side of the wrong horse.

Let’s call one side “the more grace people.”  These were keen to argue that none can perform the works of the kingdom without the empowerment of “grace.”  The “less grace people” kept saying “Yeah, but, c’mon.  Commands are there.  Loads of them.  Stop sidelining half the Bible!”

And back and forth it went.  The more I read, the more I wondered whether I’d stumbled across some intramural Roman Catholic dispute.  Whatever differences they thought they had, both sides seemed to assume that grace was a substance.  Both spoke of the empowerment and encouragement of ‘grace’, but the real concern of both parties seemed to be our life of discipleship.  Thus, it was really a discussion about motivational techniques.  Some thought that carrots are better, others reached for the stick.

On this view, “grace” is like the cheese sandwiches which David brought to his brothers at the front line (1 Samuel 17:17-19).  Here grace is an encouragement and empowerment from the christ to go out and fight the good fight.  The christ gives you strength, victory is down to you.

And if that’s grace, then naturally, some people think David should make some really tasty sandwiches, top quality pickle, mature cheddar, olive focaccia bread and plenty of it.  Other’s say, “Don’t stuff the troops, keep ’em lean and mean, teach ’em how to fight!”

Now if that was the dispute then, really, I have no desire to weigh in on the optimum  cheese-sandwich / military-briefing balance.

What I want to declare to both sides is the true meaning of grace.  Grace is not David’s sandwiches, grace is David’s victory.  Grace is David volunteering to fight for his doubting and disdainful brothers.  Grace is David delivering the killer-blow for troops who would otherwise be slaughtered.  Grace is David himself, the anointed champion, doing everything to win the day.  To put it another way – “grace alone” is just another way of saying “Christ alone”.

Once you see that, you, your Champion and the whole battle has been shifted.

Suddenly we’ve been plucked from the front-lines, our lives in the balance, and now we find ourselves caught up in a victory we could never have won.  Now we’re shouting with joy and advancing on the Philistines to plunder them.

And yes, at this point, both sandwiches and briefings come in handy.  But they must be rightly related to David’s victory.  Without it, David’s sandwiches may as well be poison.

And if anyone thinks they can ignore the victory of our Champion and move straight to the ‘battles we must fight’ they’ve completely misunderstood the gospel.  Yet I find that both the sandwich people and the pep-talk-people do this.  Both the “more grace people” and the “less grace people” carry on as though David’s victory can simply be assumed and the Christian life boiled down to our attempts at plundering.

The real distinction is not between gracious or legal motivations towards our work.  The real distinction is between Christ’s work and our work.   Which battle do we think we’re in?  Are we facing down Goliath or are we victors already?  That really is all the difference in the world.

You might say: But Glen, we all know that we’re victors through Christ, let’s get on and tell people how to plunder.  I say: Really?  We know we’re victors through Christ?!  Not even “the more grace people” seem to know it!

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Careful, lest you drift!

Our home group Bible study were finishing off Hebrews last night.  We did a bit of an overview and I asked  what we’d all take away from the book.

One person said that the warning passages leapt out at them.  Things like:

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  (Hebrews 2:1)

Another person said they were struck by the once-for-all finished-ness of Christ’s work.  Jesus – our Brother – has become our High Priest and accomplished it all on our behalf.  Amazing grace!

So there I was, leading the study, sat between these two reactions to the Letter.  How would I acknowledge both these realities?

Here’s one option:  “Indeed, you both make excellent points.  We need to balance the warning passages against the grace passages.  The grace stuff is nice, but the warnings prevent us going too crazy with the grace thing.”

Have you heard that kind of teaching?  It comes from people who have a high view of the Bible.  They want to honour both strands of teaching and for that we can commend them.  But…

Isn’t there another way of taking both elements seriously?

Imagine if the warnings are grave admonishments not to forget the grace of Christ?  Imagine if the thing we’re tempted to drift towards is legalistic, ritualistic, earnest spiritual points-scoring?  Imagine if Christ’s finished work is the truth we’re always forgetting?

Well then… be warned – Christ alone has achieved salvation, by grace alone, received by faith alone.  Be warned!  If that’s true then there is no spiritual life to be found in any other message, any other system, any other life.   Return at once to this hope:

Let us flee to take hold of the hope offered to us [that we] may be greatly encouraged. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever.  (Hebrews 6:18-20)

We must beware.  All of us naturally drift in the Christian life.  We must flee from those temptations.  We must take hold of true gospel hope.  But remember – the direction in which we’re tempted to drift is towards earnest spiritual endeavour.  When the Bible says, “Don’t drift!” it’s not trying to bring you back to serious-minded religious behaviour, it’s calling you from it.

Don’t drift!  Open your Bible and return to your true hope – Christ alone.

PS – in this light, you might like to consider Dan Hames’ post on Lent


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Jonathan Edwards here speaks of God’s pleasure in creation:

“the pleasure God hath in those things which have been mentioned, is rather a pleasure in diffusing and communicating to, than in receiving from, the creature. Surely, it is no argument of indigence [i.e. neediness] in God that he is inclined to communicate of his infinite fullness. It is no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain, that it is inclined to overflow.”

God creates from fullness not need.  His glory is not about demanding but giving.  From the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son comes the logic of creation’s in-time manufacture.  Creation is not the first time God has to relate to another.  Instead, creation finds its origin in His already-outgoing nature.

Creation is, therefore, birthed in self-giving love, not willed out of any necessity.  We can rest assured – God has not called us forth to gain from us, but to give to us.  In this sense we are “created for His glory.”  We exist precisely because it is His glorious nature to give life.

The Father has eternally poured life and blessings onto and into His Son by the Spirit.  He continues to express this glory by pouring out life to the world through His Christ.  In this way creation will be glorified, as the Lord gives of Himself, even to the depths of the cross.

Or to say it how Jesus did: “He who loses his life will find it.” (Luke 17:33).  First it is God who finds His life in losing it.  He is who He is as He gives Himself away for the world.  Therefore Jesus does not call us into anything He hasn’t eternally and originally been part of.  But now, through His invitation, we get to share in it.  Glory!

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Melancthon wrote to a guy called Brenz to clarify the difference between the Protestant position on justification and Augustine’s.  The difference is vital!

Luther being Luther, he couldn’t help adding a P.S. to Melancthon’s letter:

And I, dear Brenz, in order to get a better grip on this issue frequently imagine it this way: as if in my heart there is no quality that is called faith or charity, but instead of them I put Christ himself and say: this is my righteousness; He is the quality and my formal righteousness, as they call it. In this way I free myself from the perception of the law and works, and even from the perception of this object, Christ, who is understood as a teacher or a giver; but I want Him to be my gift and teaching in Himself, so that I may have all things in Him.  So he says: I am the way, the truth and the life. He does not say: I give you the way, the truth and the life, as if He worked in me while being placed outside of me. He must be such things in me, remain in me, live in me, speak not through me but into me, 2 Cor. 5; so that we may be righteousness in Him, not in love or in gifts that follow.

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I was recently asked the old question: “But if we’re in Christ forevermore, why be good?”

Any number of counter-questions might be appropriate:

Is fear of consequences really the only reason for avoiding sin?

Isn’t unconditional love most likely to elicit a good response? 

Why is being good the ultimate arbiter (rather than relationship with God)?


But as we spoke it seemed clear to me that the big misconception behind it all was a view that says: The Christian life is really, really, really hard and the only reason to live it is because there are other, basically unrelated, spiritual rewards.  Take away these carrots and sticks and of course you’ll sin. Because, you know, sin is really great.  It’s so great that God has to threaten us with hell to stop us having fun.  Offer free grace and there’ll be pandemonium.

As though the way of Jesus is stifling.

As though sin is life-giving.

As though God’s a cosmic kill-joy.

As though only eternal damnation balances the scales enough to make Christianity the clever choice.

As though Jesus said “My yoke is hard, but hell is harder.”

But what if Jesus really brings life and sin only brings death?  What if Christ’s yoke really is the easy one – the only one that properly fits?  What if you don’t have to dangle people’s feet over the pit to get them to behave?  What then?

Well you tell them “You’re in Christ forevermore, why be bad?”





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From Spurgeon’s book: All of Grace

Do not attempt to touch yourself up and make yourself something other than you really are, but come as you are to Him who justifies the ungodly. …The Gospel will receive you into its halls if you come as a sinner, not otherwise. Wait not for reformation, but come at once for salvation. God justifieth the ungodly, and that takes you up where you now are; it meets you in your worst estate. Come in your disorder. I mean, come to your heavenly Father in all your sin and sinfulness. Come to Jesus just as you are: filthy, naked, neither fit to live nor fit to die. Come, you that are the very sweepings of creation; come, though you hardly dare to hope for anything but death. Come, though despair is brooding over you, pressing upon your bosom like a horrible nightmare. Come and ask the Lord to justify another ungodly one.


And here’s a paper I wrote on how to preach evangelistically to sinners without demanding repentance first.


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On Friday I posted a video of Jason McElwain.  He’s the autistic kid who set the last four minutes of a high-school basketball game on fire.  As his six 3-pointers sail in, the crowd go absolutely bananas.  It’s exhilerating and heart-warming and all kinds of wonderful.

But then I watched this video.  Same kid, same game, but it left me with a very different feeling…

I’m probably making far too much out of this (tell me if you think so), but this video makes me worry for young Eric.

  —  ‘They expected Eric to love the game.  They didn’t expect him to have autism…’

  —  ‘Terry Connolly has big dreams for Eric…’

  —  ‘Just maybe we can hold onto the hope that Eric can play basketball one day, it might only be for 10 minutes but… maybe one day…’

Leaving aside the point that Jason only played for four minutes… what’s happening here?  Jason is being celebrated as a champion yes.  But very quickly, the hope he provides is turned into a model for emulation.  And the impression that’s left (on me at any rate) is that Jason begins as a hero to rejoice in, but soon becomes a standard to meet.

There is a question for Eric’s parents.  How will they ‘preach Jason’ to their son?  You see Jason’s efforts could be used just to ramp up levels of expectation for Eric (which would do neither him nor the parents any good).  Or Jason could liberate the family through their joy in another’s success.  Which is it to be: Law or Gospel?  Role model or Champion?  Pressure or Freedom?

If they leave Eric, ultimately, with Gospel who knows what he might achieve.  Literally, who knows?  That’s the point of ‘gospel preaching’ – it liberates a person into any number of unforeseen paths.  He might even take up a proper sport, like cricket.

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