And the Greatest of These is Grace

Recently Fox News personality Brit Hume suggested on national TV that fallen golf giant Tiger Woods abandon Buddhism and embrace Christianity. Hume reasoned that Christianity allows for forgiveness and redemption, concepts not at home in Buddhism. Hume added that as a Christian Tiger could start over, find forgiveness, and possibly reconcile with his wife and children.

While such a move on Tiger’s part would seem to be self-serving, the suggestion is not unlike what the Bible actually says. The apostle Paul in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians paints a picture not unlike where Tiger finds himself. Lives without Jesus are empty: we were dead in our sins, following the ways of evil, and chasing after our passions and desires.

BUT—so begins the scandal of biblical Christianity in v. 4. In a decisive reversal of fate, so to speak, God acted. After all, God had to act; we could not. We were dead. God intervenes because he is “rich in mercy” and loves us despite our deadness.

This is a hard notion to embrace and so I can understand why most non-Christians misunderstand what is meant by salvation—because most Christians don’t really get it either. Salvation is not based on human action or worth.

It really is a free gift. Therefore, it is not like a home which I “own” but which I will spend the next 25 to 30 years paying off. And because it is a free gift, it has some of the embarrassments that are normally attached to free gifts.

For example, if someone gave me a free suit, I would be appreciative to be sure, but I would be uncomfortable wearing the suit to an event where I knew the giver would be present. I would be even more self-conscious if everyone in the room knew about the suit.

Also I would be bit suspicious. I would wonder what did the suit-giver want from me? Are there any strings attached? I would want to somehow pay back in some way the one who gave me the suit.

Furthermore, like all free gifts, it can be misused. The free suit, continuing our analogy, should probably not be worn to work on the car or to mow the yard. Nor would it be fitting to speak evil of the one who gave the suit especially while wearing it.

Anyway, analogies generally break down so I will not push this one too much more, but the point is clear: a free gift can be misunderstood. Yet, endure one more point: the acceptance of the gift is never seen a meritorious act on the part of the recipient.

Salvation, says Paul, depends on God’s initiative. Using resurrection language, Paul announces that God has made us alive, raised us, and seated us in a position of power—notice the threefold “with Christ/him.” Thus, what God did for his Son, he does for those who believe in the Son—for the sake of his Son (see Eph 1.20).

Paul beautifully simplifies the profound nature of God’s saving work in the formula: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Grace is what God has done; faith is our acceptance of what God has done; and works or deeds grow out of the dynamic interaction of the first two. Paul stresses salvation is not the result of human work or people really could say they saved themselves.

However, there is room for human effort—one can reach out and receive the suit, so to speak—if human effort is kept in its proper place.

Grace, Faith, Works. That must be the proper order.

However, the key note is grace. Grace is the engine that drives both faith and works. To misquote Paul just a bit: Now there remains three great truths: grace, faith, and works. But the greatest of these is grace.

When a person comes to God (or returns to him), it is like starting over or, as Paul says, being recreated. However, the end result of being recreated is that we become people, who like God, do good works which is precisely why God created us in the first place: to live as God would live for the sake of others.

So what do you think? Should Tiger become a Christian to deal with his mistakes? Should you?

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In on God’s Plan?

I can answer that question in only one sentence. Well, it’s not really my answer. I find it in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. However, the sentence is a long one as it begins in 1:3 and goes through v. 14. Most English translations will break this into smaller sentences since English does not bear the weight of the original well.

Not only is this a very complex sentence, the content is some of the richest in the entire Bible. The text (1:3-15) takes the form of a synagogue blessing. Paul begins this letter with a call to worship that blesses God for blessing us with all spiritual blessings.

In what follows some of those blessing are enumerated with potent verbs: God chose us (v. 4); he predestined us (v. 5); and he freely gave or bestowed his grace on us (v. 6) because of Jesus.

But more so, he chose us with particular outcomes in mind: he chose us to be holy and blameless and he predestined us to be adopted as his children. In other words, God has called us into a certain kind of life, a different way of living, that is, to live like God would live.

Paul further describes in 1:7-11 what it means to have God’s grace poured on us. Thus we have what the Bible calls “redemption.” This means that the world no longer has a claim on us, God has “bought us back” so we now belong to him to live out his purpose.

Furthermore, we now know that our sins, faults, and trespasses are forgiven because of God’s rich grace. Yet, Paul pushes us beyond an individualistic reading of the text; he forces us beyond the capacity of human imagination. As believers in Jesus, we now have an inside track on what God is up to. God’s plan includes the entire universe, not just individual humans. It involves pulling the broken universe (whether in heaven or earth) back together again (see v. 10). Paul is insistent that it is because of Jesus that all of this is possible.

Thus, in this context of God’s cosmic plan, we are “heirs” invited to participate in reclaiming the world for all that is good and right. We can be sure we are heirs because God has given us the symbol of the future. The Holy Spirit “seals us” or marks us as heirs, as those who belong especially to God.

While this passage is a long and winding text, the point is simple: God had a plan, Jesus made it possible, and the Holy Spirit guarantees it . . . and . . . as believers in Jesus we are not only a part of God’s mission but participants in it.

Giving Not Grasping

Known as the Carmen Christi, the song of Christ, Philippians 2:5-11 may well be an early Christian hymn, or at least, part of one. Translators cannot decide whether it should be set off as poetry or as prose because it is rhythmic but not fully balanced. Paul may have used a familiar song to make his point—similar to a way a preacher today might cite a well known song but change a word here or there to make a different point—the new point made here, though, is very important.

Using a keyword in this letter, Paul calls on the reader to think like Jesus (Phil 2:5). Next the song explains how to think like Jesus. Jesus, who exists as God, did not consider that privilege as an opportunity to grab more for himself.

Instead, consistent with the nature of God, he “emptied” himself or made himself nothing, taking on the “form” of a slave. Thus, he demoted himself from divine omnipotence to menial service. The demotion follows a staircase pattern: He emptied himself

taking on the form of a slave
in the likeness of humanity
in the shape of a man
becoming obedient to death
even death on a criminal’s cross

At the heart of this passage is the call to think like Jesus. How does this look? That to be like God is about giving self away. To hoard either power or possessions to oneself is not like God.

This song emphasizes the completeness of this giving away. Jesus gave up the prerogatives of Godness to become a human for the sake of others. Jesus’ renunciation of his privilege was so complete that he died a criminal’s death.

The completeness of Jesus’ giving it all away is implied in v. 9. Here God the Father is the one who exalts Jesus and gives him the name above every name. At this name, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. The name referred to here is Lord (v. 11). The inspiration for this point comes from the ancient prophet Isaiah where Lord refers to YHWH, God’s personal name.

Before me every knee will bow;
by me every tongue will swear.
They will say of me, ‘In the LORD alone
are righteousness and strength
. (Isa. 45:23b-24a)

While I would never pretend to know all the mysteries regarding the nature of God, such as how could God become human, did God really die, or how Jesus was still God, yet human, this text is clear about one thing:

God’s nature is about giving not getting. Consequently, those who follow Jesus will grow into givers not getters. This is how we think like Jesus.

God’s Partners in God’s Mission

While I am certain that we should see ourselves as working for God, I’m amazed and humbled by apostle Paul’s insistence that we work with God, more as a partner than an employee or even a slave. In one place, Paul will assert that he is among “God’s fellow workers” and that those benefiting from his and other’s ministry are “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3.9).

In another place, Paul will talk about how his ministry is not based on his competency but on a kind of competency that comes from God (2 Cor. 3.5). Even more, Paul will root Christian ministry in sharing or participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus any suffering we might experience in ministry is like Christ’s own giving of his life for the sake of others (see 2 Cor. 4.7-12).

Therefore, in partnership with God, Christian ministry is a participation in the mission of God. God’s mission is nothing short of inviting people into a relationship with God that will shape them into a distinct people who live their lives for the sake of others.

Another way to frame God’s mission is that God seeks all people to become re-connected with or reconciled to him. God then recreates us in the image of Jesus to become agents of reconciliation and healing. This is based not on our competency—since even we needed help to become reconciled.

However, once reunited with God, we are initiated into God’s own project of healing the world. Paul calls us “Christ ’s ambassadors.” This is fitting language as we now belong to God’s kingdom but we have been called to serve as God’s delegates to bring Good News to the world.

Churches, then, should function something like embassies. Churches are God’s embassies in a foreign land to support the interests of God’s kingdom. However, an embassy also functions to help foreigners find out more about the embassy’s country and even help people who would like to enter that country to find out how to do that.

As representatives of God’s kingdom, therefore, we speak for our King. As Paul said, we implore on Christ’s behalf—as though God were making his appeal through us. Our appeal or petition is that people would become reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5.20) and that is truly the mission of God

Matthew’s Christmas: For the Sake of the World

Imagine that we had a chance to hear the old tax collector-turned apostle Matthew tell his story.

As we knocked on the door, we would have waited as the old man moved his fragile body to the door. We would have been warmly received, as Matthew was well known for giving the best parties back in the day.

As we entered the house, we would have noticed the pictures hanging in the entryway. These pictures honored the ancestors who had paved the way for God’s mission to the world. Among the pictures were those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, Solomon, Zerubbabel, and lesser-known personalities, like Akim, Matthan, and finally a Joseph.

The few women among the pictures were somehow out-of-place: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and then one picture simply read: “Formerly Uriah’s wife.” Next to the picture of Joseph was that of very young woman named “Mary.” Had we the courage to ask Matthew about this very small but odd collection of women, Matthew might have reminded us that in God’s story there is always room for the outsider.

Once we finally entered Matthew’s living room and after he stoked the fire to make sure we were all comfortable, he would begin his tale. Unexpectedly, we would be jarred by the Christmas story beginning in a bit of a scandal. Joseph actually wanted to divorce Mary because she was pregnant—maybe the women in the collection have more in common than previously thought.

Matthew would regale us with the story of the “magi,” stargazers from a far away land who came to worship Jesus. Again Matthew reminds us, there is always room for outsiders. Against the backdrop of this story, Matthew would tell us about Herod’s deceitful plan to “worship” Jesus and how Herod’s envy set in motion the incident in Bethlehem.

Matthew himself is visibly shaken as he recalls the events the day Herod sent troops to exterminate the baby boys of Bethlehem to ensure there would be no contenders for his throne, not now, not ever. Not exactly what one expects to hear as part of the Christmas story.

Now we are visibly shaken—not understanding why God would let this happen and why God did not intervene. Matthew responds to our uneasiness. “Don’t you see God entered our world just as it is.”

* If you found this take on Matthew’s version of the nativity intriguing, you might enjoy this: http://www.wineskins.org/filter.asp?SID=2&co_key=1962.

Room for Mystery

A temptation of our time is to present Christianity as logical and reasonable by the standards of this world. Many years ago Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, attempted this move in On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultural Despisers (1799). He conceded that science and the Bible were incompatible and argued that “religion” deals with human “affections” and as such was a matter of faith, not fact. Schleiermacher’s work marks a beginning point for the current divide between public facts and private faith. Thus, in our time, politics belongs to the world of facts while religious beliefs live in the realm of private preferences. Neither have defenders of the Christian faith always helped. John Toland, for example, wrote a work called Christianity Not Mysterious (1693). Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, both liberal and conservative writers have attempted to remove mystery from the Bible and from Christian thinking. Oddly, both approaches accept that human logic and science should and can support all truth claims.

Not much has changed in this regard. Liberals still tend to reject anything in the Bible at odds with (the current state of) science and conservatives, using the exact same empirical tools, seeking to show that (what they call “true”) science supports the Christian faith, not realizing that they treat biblical truths as accountable to human logic. Some claims in the Bible cannot be reduced to being reasonable or answerable to the dictates of science or logic! Despite this, Christians should boldly announce these claims even when, by the world’s standard, they are considered foolish to science and contradictory to logic. (I am not arguing that logic and science have no role in how we know, but that reason and logic have limits when it comes to comprehending divine mystery).

The very centre of Christian theology, the incarnation (literally, the enfleshing) of God in the person of Jesus Christ, is one such mystery. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once labelled the incarnation the “absolute paradox.” This paradox, God becoming human, the creator becoming (in some sense) created, was not, for him, a problem for the intellect to unravel but a mystery for the human spirit to experience and to hold in awe.

Beyond debate, the Bible declares that God became human. This, however, is a logical impossibility as what it means to be God does not line up with what it means to be human. For instance, God is all-powerful; humans are not. Humans can die, and presumably, God cannot. If God could die, then, it would seem that he would cease to be God. The logical contradiction—that God could become human—is what Christians believe. There is no way to prove, in any way science accepts, that Jesus was both human and divine; yet the Christian faith hangs on accepting this very “contradiction.”

To explore this further, the Bible, as most Christians believe, is the word of God. This is a bold claim but also impossible to prove through science or reason. To complicate matters, the Bible is also the product of human authors. At least forty writers over a period of fifteen hundred years composed the contents of the Bible. Additionally, many thousands participated in the formation of the canon and the preservation of the texts in that canon throughout the centuries. Christians believe that the Bible is both a human product and the medium through which God reveals his Son to the world and continues to speak to the church today. Because of this, we revere the Bible as sacred Scripture carrying the very authority of God, and yet study it as a textbook with insights into human history.

This confidence in the human-divine origin of the Bible is not reasonable from a logical or scientific perspective. Christian belief in the incarnation (and the Bible) transcends human logic and the empirical observation of science. Thus, our faith and our thinking must have room for mystery.

This mystery only intensifies when we explore the meaning of the incarnation. Why did God become human? The incarnation is a necessary precondition for the atonement and our subsequent reconciliation with God. We believe, and the Bible teaches, that Jesus, the God-man, gave His life to save humans and bring them back to God. As Christians, we generally accept this so matter-of-factly that we do not reflect on how unreasonable this claim is. We believe the death of one person is sufficient to cover the sins of everyone who has ever lived. If Jesus were just a human, then there is no way He could pay for another’s sins and possibly not his own. Even if Jesus were just a sinless human, then His death might cover one other person—a life for a life. However, because Jesus is God he can cover the sins of the world. Thus, the mystery of our religion is that God took our sins upon himself; He paid the price for human sin. If true, then Christianity is far more mysterious than we usually comprehend.

Yet this is precisely what the Bible teaches: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5.20). The Greek, however, is even stronger: “God made the one not knowing sin [into] sin for us.” This Sinless One not only bore our sins, but He took our sins into Himself, a thought teetering on the edge of nonsense … a mystery.

If that is not enough, Paul, in a seeming slip of tongue, suggests that God himself experienced death in the crucifixion of Jesus when he urged the Ephesian elders to “be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20.28). God’s own blood? This bothered later scribes who altered manuscripts from “church of the God” to “church of the Lord” to avoid the obvious meaning of the text. We might say that these scribes struggled with the mystery of God dying.

Finally, since faith will always have room for mystery, how then should we respond to things we cannot explain? Paul may give us an example here. At the end of his discussion about God’s mysterious ways of dealing with Israel that resulted in an influx of Gentile believers into the church, Paul can only express awe: Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?””For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11.33-36).

Thus, when Paul encountered this mystery, he worshiped. So should we. There remains for us, then, room for mystery. May our strivings be not toward a knowledge that seeks to unravel the mystery, but toward faith that embraces more than science or logic can ever explain.

Adapted from my April 2008 Gospel Herald article by the same name.