Proof of God

Jesus didn't pick His metaphors lightly. Jesus is the Word after all, so every word he spoke was chosen with complete precision. He could have picked any symbol in the universe, yet he said “turn the other cheek.” Why? Clearly He intended us to think in terms of being willing to allow another slap. Does that mean He wants us to be slapped? Of course not. But Jesus does want us to remain within arm’s length—slapping distance—of each other.

At this point, some people always want to fly to worst-case scenarios, so please understand I do not mean that an abused wife should continue to allow herself to be beaten. But real forgiveness always involves some level of engagement—as much as possible within the confines of good sense. This is true because God is love. Everything God does and every command God ever gave can ultimately be traced back to a desire to nourish loving relationships between us and our neighbor, and between us and Him. The one thing that makes a loving relationship impossible is to push a person completely out of your life. The entire point of forgiveness is remaining open to reconciliation. Anything less than that is a counterfeit forgiveness, which is to say, a lie.

If Jesus’ metaphor means anything, it means you cannot forgive a person from beyond arm’s length.

Another important aspect of forgiveness is the fact that it’s a choice, not a process. We may need to make the choice a thousand times, and that choosing and re-choosing may look like a process, but in fact it is not. We are commanded to forgive. The command came with a promise and a warning, in order to teach us it is not an option, not a suggestion. It is a sin to disobey. To call it a “process” is tantamount to calling obedience to any other command a process. “I’m working on being faithful to my wife.” “I’m working on leaving other people’s possessions alone.” “I’m working on telling the truth.” These are morally identical statements to “I’m working on forgiving.” There is no middle ground, no process involved. There is only the choice to obey Jesus in this area in this moment, or not.

Finally, at no time has God ever commanded anyone to do anything impossible. This means God’s will for us is never contingent on God’s will for someone else. Forgiveness is a choice. Repentance is a choice. The two choices are completely independent of each other. I have no moral right to wait on your repentance before I forgive you. On the contrary, I am commanded to forgive you, period. I am commanded to forgive whether you repent of what you’ve done or not. The same is true of repentance. I must repent of my sins against a neighbor, whether that neighbor will forgive me or not. These are clear commands. But reconciliation is not commanded, because such a command would be beyond any individual’s ability to obey. Reconciliation requires not only my obedience, but also yours. Again, God never makes one person’s obedience contingent on another’s. Relationship is what we get when forgiveness meets repentance, but forgiveness and repentance each stand alone as the moral obligations of the parties involved. Both are commanded; neither is contingent on the other, and both are pleasing to the Lord.

Forgiveness may well be the most difficult of all of God’s commands, because it demands a total denial of pride and it leaves no room whatsoever for illusions or half measures. Why does God expect so much? As Dale Cramer wrote in his beautiful novel, Levi's Will, “God is love. Love is the proof of God, and forgiveness is the proof of love.”

Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:11 AM 9 comments  

Saved and Lost

What can we do about this filthy church? The short answer is...nothing. No matter which way we turn, which path we choose, we ourselves can only contribute to the mess. On the other hand, God might have a plan...

In her comment on the “Filthy Church” post, Dianne made such an important point. She wrote, "...many confuse justification with sanctification, which is where the "working out" part is supposed to start..." For those who are unclear about the theological terms “justification” and “sanctification,” here’s the gist of Dianne’s point: Too many of us in the American church today view Christianity as a single act of belief, a one time leap of faith which gets us “in,” with no further obligation ("justification"), but if that faithful moment is sincere it will be the first leap of a lifetime lived in obedience, which is to say, a lifetime lived in love ("sanctification").

“The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:4) Many of the people in the “filthy church” are not truly Christians, of course. As John said, they are liars. Mostly I think they are lying to themselves.

But there are others whose belief is sincere, even though their lives show little sign of their belief. I know, because I was once one of them. And since that is true, since there truly are believers living life like pagans, what can be the matter?

The problem starts with a terrible misconception about God's grace. “Grace” is God stooping down to save us from ourselves, even though we don’t deserve it. That’s the definition. Unfortunately, many Christians seem to understand God’s grace only in terms of justification (God stooping to the cross to get us “in”) but not in terms of sanctification (God stooping down to guide us ever closer to Him). In other words, we think our need for God’s grace was over when we trusted in the cross. We think, “Grace has done its work, now it’s up to me...” as if Christian life were a relay race, and God has passed us the baton. But we are weak, so of course in trying to take over for the Lord, we are bound to fail.

Then comes the guilt and shame. A terrible burden, and so painful, because we know we do not measure up. Usually we slip into denial as a form of self-defense, unable to obey, and unable to be honest about our disobedience because of the way it makes us feel. We fill our lives with distractions, making little gods out of possessions or other people (often our own children). We cover ourselves with them the way the first man and woman clothed themselves with leaves. We pretend we think these things please God. They are “blessings.” Yet we do know better. We know our attention and devotion has slipped down from the Creator to the mere creation, and in knowing this, deep within we live in misery.

Paul wrote eloquently of this to the early church in Rome. He says, "What I want to do, I do not do—no, the evil that I do not want to do, this I do." So even Paul—a true believer if ever anybody was—even that same Paul, still sins. He goes on to say, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" And here the word to focus on is rescue. Think about this: powerhouse believer though Paul is, still he needs to be rescued. What can “rescue” mean to Paul if not the ongoing work of God’s grace in his daily life? And this is proven with his very next words: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” followed quickly by those most welcome words in the entire Bible: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

Jesus said, “If anybody loves me, he will obey my teaching," yet how can we obey Him while we are in these wretched bodies of death? Obedience is the only right response to the grace of the cross, yet only through God's grace is obedience possible. It’s no good pretending. Since God knows us better than we know ourselves, we might as well admit there’s something in us which still longs to sin sometimes. Our desperate need for rescue did not end at the cross. On the contrary, for a true believer, the cross was only the beginning. Something in us remains out of balance with the cosmos. The cross only makes us more aware of it, aware of how wretched we remain without God’s grace—without God’s stooping down to us—and how desperately we still need His grace every second of every minute of every day.

This then is the paradox:
“ have been saved, through faith...not by works...” (Eph 2:8-10)
Yet also...
“...a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)

Paradox is exactly what we should expect when striving to draw near Almighty God, whose mysteries are “beyond tracing out.” And as always, when faced with such a paradox concerning Him, the answer is never to pick one side over the other, but rather to say, “Yes” to both. “Yes” to God’s grace working through faith in the cross, and “Yes” to God’s grace still working through faith even now, to rescue us from our bodies of death, to guide us as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us to will and to act according to His good purpose.”

If you have tried to live a Christian life and failed and failed again, here is my advice: stop trying.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His Glory and Grace.

(Helen Lemmel)

In trying so hard you are only looking to yourself, your puny efforts, your little plans, your hopeless strategy. Or you are hiding behind those tiny idols you have made in life. Step out from behind there. Be naked before God so God can clothe you with his Son. Look to Jesus. Look only to Him. Focus on His love for you, and let His love reignite that glorious flame of love you felt when you first believed. Christian, it simply is not possible to be rescued by His love while you are so distracted. So stop already. Just stop, and look to Jesus...

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:57 AM 15 comments