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:
“...you 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:

Kim said... March 5, 2010 at 7:03 PM  

And since Jesus is the Word, the very Scriptures Himself, the best way to look to Him is to look there first. To read the Bible and pray through it daily. "For it is not an idle word for you; indeed it is your life." Deuteronomy 32:47 If we don't have this daily "washing" of the Word how can we be anything BUT filthy?

Kay Day said... March 5, 2010 at 11:02 PM  

Amen.
This has been my experience.
Whether taught directly, or whether it was just perception, I believed exactly what you are talking about. Saved by faith and faith alone, but the rest was all on me.
Do this and don't do that and maybe, if I got it right, God would approve of me. Maybe I could earn His pleasure.

I still remember exactly where I was when it occurred to me that I was no more capable of my own Sanctification than I was of my own Justification. I let it go right there. Of course I have to keep letting it go. Old patterns and beliefs die hard.
But now I'm learning to trust in God to complete the good work He began in me.
Of course I have a part to play. Obedience. That covers it. I fail, of course, but God gets that.
In all of this I'm learning the best thing: God loves me and approves of me and is pleased with me just because of who I am and who He is. Not because of anything I do.
It's beautiful.

Kay Day said... March 5, 2010 at 11:05 PM  

Actually, I've been thinking of writing a post about Holiness/Sanctification. I was thinking that Sanctification is a position that God gives me and it's my job to live it out. Only He can set me apart. But I can choose to act as one set apart or not.
Not to earn His love, but to show that I love Him.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said... March 6, 2010 at 11:15 AM  

I think too often we who grew up talking about "a personal relationship with Christ" haven't accepted the fact that like any relationship, the one we have with God should be nurtured.

Thus your admonition, Athol, to look to Jesus may sound simplistic or incomplete.

But in our human relationships, don't they grow most when we sit together without other distractions and listen in turn or pour out our hearts? Why do we think a relationship with God should be different?

So, yes, as Kay said, the Scriptures and prayer are the key to strengthening our relationship with Him who promises to draw near to us if we draw near to Him (Jas. 4:8).

BTW, Athol, about your last post. I agree that much of what has passed as Christianity in America is dying, but I belong to a healthy, vibrant, Biblical church, too, and I see more signs of life than I've seen in some time.

Our participation in mission activities, outreach to the community, the restoration of an emphasis on prayer ... there are too many things to list.

But from hanging out with the online writer communities, I've come to see that my experience is not universal. Consequently, I've started praying for the church in America (as well as for the persecuted church in other parts of the world), specifically using the warnings to the seven churches in Revelations. Seems like that's a way to know I'm praying according to God's will, not my own supposition.

Yes, I do pray for a revival as well. I pray for God's mercy on us because of the nonsense we have tolerated.

We still are in a position to give in so many ways to churches enduring suffering and deprivation. Believers with much are supposed to share with those in need. Right now we're part of the "much." May God use us to build His Church universal for years to come.

Becky

Athol said... March 6, 2010 at 12:38 PM  

Excellent point, Kim. The Bible is essentially God’s face. To look into it is to look to Him.

“Not to earn His love, but to show Him that I love Him,” is a wonderful way to put it, Kay. It reminds me of Jesus’ own words: “If you love, me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:17) Before I understood the ongoing role of God’s grace AFTER that leap of faith in Jesus, I used to read those kinds of verses as calls to obedience. Now I read them the other way around, as simple descriptions of what loving God looks like.

And Becky in response to your interesting point, I’ve always thought God arranged things as He did—stop trying so hard and just look to Jesus—in part because he WANTS it to seem simplistic or incomplete. That sense of over-simplicity can be a test of faith. It whispers that God’s plan is not enough. That there should be something just a bit more complicated about all this grace business. And in listening to those voices we find ourselves trying to add something, and WHAMO, right there our pride kicks in and we’re back to sewing fig leaves. This happens every time. Then eventually we realize where we are and go back to Him with empty hands, back to the simplicity of grace, and this cycle continues, looking to Jesus, distracted, looking to Jesus again, and hopefully looking to him just a little longer each time, which is perhaps the best we can expect while we’re still in these “wretched...bodies of death.”

We know Jesus was always saying enigmatic, almost Buddha sounding things like, “The first shall be last,” and “To save your life you must lose it.” I think every time we encounter those comments they’re intended to point us to the great enigma of grace, to the all-too-simple fact that in the midst of all the complicated problems of the world, the right response ultimately boils down to the counterintuitive doing of just ONE thing: love God.

When we stop focusing on our strategies and plans and simply focus on JESUS—by which I mean when we look into His Word as Kim said, live among His people as I wrote about in “Filthy Church,” and speak and listen to Him “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)—we find ourselves beginning to act in most amazing ways, doing love to the left and to the right and all around with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength. But it is not us doing this love. Rather as the Scriptures clearly say, “it is God who works in us to will and to act according to His good purpose.”

One can look at it this way: to achieve the desired effect, ignore the effect and focus on the cause.

Or to use a sports analogy: it’s like what they teach you about batting in baseball. You don’t hit home runs by watching your own bat. Your only hope of hitting them is when you begin to ignore your bat and focus all of your attention on the Pitcher’s ball. This is also true in archery. To hit the bull’s eye, you focus on the bull’s eye, the center of the target, not your bow and arrow. In Hebrew sin’s literal definition is “missing the mark,” and with God Himself as the “mark” we miss, the bull’s eye, this last analogy seems particularly apt. Keep your eye on Him, not on what you’re doing.

Thank you all for your wonderful comments. Anybody else have something to add?

laurel said... March 6, 2010 at 9:26 PM  

Just want to say amen and amen. After being a believer around 20 years, God only recently revealed what you're all talking about, in a deeper way, to me. I saw that I have been trying to obey in my flesh. How hilarious is that? Now that I understand I've been given the FULLNESS of Messiah, all I have to do is notice when I'm being fruitless in the fruit of the Spirit, which signals my flesh creeping in. Then I can confess (sins like fear, anxiety, impatience), lay it down and let Him rule again in me. Yeshua wasn't mocking us when He said, "Be holy as your Father in Heaven is Holy." Sanctification is the victorious life.

patti said... March 8, 2010 at 6:35 AM  

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full at His glorious face and the things of the world will seem strangely dim by the light of His glory and grace.

Beautiful post!
Patti

Buckley Wheatish said... March 8, 2010 at 2:08 PM  

Athol,

I miss our discussions but this helps. Eloquently explained. True. Thank you.

Oddly, I very recently wrote a song for mountain dulcimer which unintentionally has Lent written all over it as it refers to us simply needing to remember to keep our eyes on Him, the Temple. Not as articulately explored as this discussion, I think it offers a wearied retrospective regarding an "aha" type of moment for the sojourner. You might like it. I hope it translates.

Oh, if the meter skips around just a bit that's because unlike poetry, you haven't the benefit of hearing it sung while chorded and finger-picked on the dulcimer. :-)
Gary (Dallas)
================================
Eyes On The Temple


I stumbled upon him staring at his campfire.
I never asked his name or about his beard.
As I drank his coffee a midnight wolf became the crier.

He could tell by my silence I was curious.
So, he skipped the lofty talk of philosophies.
And after a long while, he whispered with a smile, "It's not mysterious.

People, places and years,
too many good time and tears
can destroy the truth so simple.
You don't need no light
to blind you in the night.
Just don't lose sight of the Temple."

She said, "I'm sorry if God broke your windmill,
but who told you crystal seeds fly through the air?
Perhaps you're upward trek for some holy architecture... leads downhill."

(I wondered) "Has life become a complicated scorecard
that keeps me counting saviors in the dark?"
She said, "Stop building so many crosses
and thinkin' 'bout gains and losses. It's not that hard.

People, places and years
Too many good time and tears
can destroy the truth so simple.
You don't need no light
to blind you in the night.
Just don't lose sight of the Temple."
Just don't you lose sight of the Temple.

Kim said... March 8, 2010 at 3:44 PM  

Hi,again! Some background that makes this chorus of the hymn you quoted all the more poignant: its composer penned it after she had gone blind in mid-life. She lived in destitute conditions 'til almost age 98. When asked how she was doing she would reply, "I'm doing well in the things that count." Amen!

Athol Dickson said... March 9, 2010 at 4:53 AM  

"Stop building so many crosses
and thinkin' 'bout gains and losses."

That's it exactly, Gary. Thanks for the poem. As usual, I love your words!

And thanks, Kim, for the background on the hymn. I had no idea of the details, but it doesn't surprise me to learn that Helen Lemmel walked the walk she wrote about. Her words are too perfectly true to be merely theoretical.

Eddie Snipes said... March 10, 2010 at 6:37 AM  

Excellent post, Athol. You hit it on the head and explained our ongoing sanctification well.

Stephani said... March 10, 2010 at 4:59 PM  

I apologize, I haven't read any of this yet, but I will. I just want to say, "How cool is it that the author of the book I'm reading left a comment on my blog?!" Thank you so much. I have to confess, I have had your book for a few years and I'm just now beginning to read it. God's timing is perfect because I'm already getting answers to some of my questions in just the small amount I've read thus far. Not questions I had actually asked God, but had thought to myself. He is answering what I wanted to ask, but never had. Anyway, you know what I mean. I chose your book because of my love for the Old Testament and the Jewish people. My father instilled this in me. I'll keep reading and come back to visit! Thanks again!

Nicole said... March 12, 2010 at 12:15 PM  

One thing I've noticed . . . Some Christians use grace as their enabler. It was never intended to enable sin or provide "tolerance" for sin.

"(I wondered) 'Has life become a complicated scorecard
that keeps me counting saviors in the dark?'
She said, "Stop building so many crosses
and thinkin' 'bout gains and losses. It's not that hard."

Fabulous lyrics.

Anonymous said... March 14, 2010 at 1:49 PM  

***UPDATE*** Athol, thank you for your prayers and these convicting posts. "Unchurched" is no longer so!

Athol Dickson said... March 15, 2010 at 7:50 AM  

That's great news Anon!

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