Yesterday I took our old computer to the dump.  Actually, the toxic substances recycling center.  Getting out of the car I lifted the hatch.  To the guys removing the computer I joked, “Just make sure you let the bird seed!”  The bags of seed I had picked up earlier were stacked behind the computer.
“Did you say that because I was whistling?” the one in glasses grinned.  I was too embarrassed to admit I hadn’t heard him (aging ears).  “Maybe you thought I was a bird!” he laughed and I instantly liked him.  I whistle too and was glad to meet a fellow featherless friend.

I don’t hear near as much whistling as I did when I was a boy.  There are probably a lot of cultural reasons for that (in addition to my waning hearing!).  I do wonder if we are in general, a more miserable people.  Odd if that’s the case since we Americans are more prosperous than ever.  But then, prosperity has not brought us more satisfaction.  Which could be instructive for those who crave what we have.

Although the Bible is peppered with references to “joy” and “rejoice”, the grounds of joy the writers point to are not possessions or privilege.  Occasionally they say joy is the result of what someone else has done, but in most cases the joy experienced or pursued is the result of God and His work.  O Tidings of comfort and joy…, comfort and joy…  
Jesus came to the earth to destroy the works of the devil.  I hope you find reason to whistle this season.

The Christmas Gospel

After we hitched the trailer to the SUV, my wife and I went to a tree farm for a Christmas tree.  No, not the cut-your-own kind.  The trees were neatly stacked upright on frames: scotch, pine, fir, you name it.  We got a really fragrant white pine that was a little dirty.  I hosed it off first and let it dry before planting it in our living room.

It’s a figure of speech.  We already have hardwood floors.

There are all kinds of mouthwatering cookies around the house ridiculing my good intentions.  Along with more treats from some of the children in my wife’s Sunday school class.  
Betty just called in from the kitchen asking about an address for the Christmas cards we’re distributing–you know the ones, the one-page glossies with our picture on.  “Don’t forget to pray for us!”  The kind we find in our church and street mailboxes.
Betty’s been making forays to the malls and elsewhere to find the right presents for the grandchildren.  And others.  In both our immediate as well as extended families, we don’t exchange many gifts anymore so that task isn’t as all-consuming as it used to be.  But it takes time.  Betty bakes some presents too.  
At night we pull the plug on the outdoor lights, head to bed, and wonder what holiday assignment was left undone.  Sunday is our Christmas program and a lot of people are putting a lot of time in getting ready.  Then next week are the Christmas eve services.    

We used to all sleep around the tree downstairs in the family room but with two married children and one on the other side of the world, that’s not going to happen this year.  I don’t care what Betty says, I am not going to let a perfectly good bed upstairs go to waste!
If you enjoy Christmas traditions and practices in your family, you know the warm feeling of familiarity and sentiment.  It’s a wonderful time of year.  But behind the carols on the radio and the glossy advertisements selling the hottest presents of the season, can lurk some dark shadows.  This year people were killed by other shoppers on Black Friday.  People fighting over dolls and flat screen TVs?  And finding a place to park at the mall can raise any American’s blood pressure.  Family members get irritated that someone else has bought Grandma what they were going to buy.  Parents disappointed that little Johnny and little Janey seem bored by their very expensive gifts.  Extended families dueling over the best dates for family feasts.  Church members upset because so-and-so got the lead part in the pageant instead of them.  A wife upset that her husband won’t help put up the decorations.

Selfishness, sin, and neglect, all happening within sight of the birth of the gospel, the good news.  How good is it that He came!

From Legalism to Sanctification

“Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God.”  C.J. Mahaney’s (The Cross-Centered Life) pithy definition gets at why obeying God in word and deed can be a problem.  It’s not a problem that we obey–that’s very good, but why we obey.  If we obey hoping God will forgive us, or so He might accept us, perhaps unknowingly we actually blaspheme God.  I don’t think that’s too strong of a word and here’s why: whether we realize it or not, banking on our own efforts curses God’s Calvary effort.  It dismisses Jesus’ work as adequate.  Because the Bible says we are forgiven by faith in His work alone, obeying to be forgiven in essence refuses the gift.  It’s declaring that Jesus dying as a sin sacrifice is not enough.  “I have to somehow complete His work.”

Imagine your parents giving you a Christmas gift and hearing you say, “Oh thank you!  This is awesome!  I promise even if I have to work overtime, as soon as possible I’ll pay you for this.”  Mom and Dad would exchange horrified looks.  For weeks they imagined the look on your face as you unwrapped your present.  They thought you’d receive it with joy.  You did but…  How pained they are to have their child think he needs to repay them for what they freely gave.

It’s not that obedience is wrong; it’s very right.  But it’s the difference between obeying to get, and obeying because you’ve gotten.  The person who recognizes that God declares him righteous solely by his faith alone in the work of Christ, now happily obeys God and wants to as a result of being justified.  She doesn’t obey so she’ll be forgiven, but because she’s been forgiven.  The difference is enormous. 

Justification saves us and it is God’s work alone.  We …are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:24-25)

Once we have been justified, we are confident God accepts us, confident God’s forgiven us of all past, present and future sin, and no longer live in fear (1 John 4:18).  The rest of life is one of obedience in response to God’s mercy and salvation.  We call it sanctification, the process of being made holy.  Unlike justification which is God’s solo project, we are sanctified by a partnership of our own efforts (1 Timothy 4:7), and the Holy Spirit’s work (Philippians 2:13).

Legalism’s curse is not just keeping–or judging others by rules not found in the Bible, it is keeping those rules that are there, FOR THE WRONG REASONS. 

More on Legalism

Several weeks ago when I preached on legalism, I got some of the blowback I expected.  What I heard was similar to what I would have thought or said just 6 or 7 years ago.  I used to be afraid that if I taught a gospel stripped of any works–which I truly believed it was, people would take advantage of it and think I meant they could sin with impunity.  “Hey, it’s all covered by the blood.”  Now I worry about other things when I preach the gospel.

I had two main purposes in the sermon:
  1. Warn us not to judge the faith of others by behaviors the Bible doesn’t address.
  2. Present a gospel that is effective solely because of Christ’s work, not an 80 or 90%  deal to which we add our 10 or 20% of effort. 
It was in the judging part that the greatest confusion occurred.  I pointed out that half a century ago, some Christians condemned other women of faith for wearing lipstick or silk stockings, or condemned Christians who played cards.  These are no longer issues for most Christians because we’ve admitted Scripture doesn’t prohibit any of them.  
Then I went further and suggested that smoking and drinking in moderation are in the same category.  Some object that they’re evil practices because they can harm the human body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor.6:19-20) and with which we’re to honor God.  I went out on a limb and insisted that it doesn’t say–or mean, that you drink in moderation or can’t smoke.  OR, if it does, then other behaviors potentially harmful to the body are just as wrong.  Such as large intakes of sweets or transfats.  Two of my personal favorites come to mind: donuts and chips.  Or eating lots of salt which causes strokes.  Or enjoying dangerous hobbies like racing, skydiving or even skiing.
Face it, we can be very selective in what we interpret “honor God with your body” to mean.  We’re sure it includes not smoking, but maybe less sure it includes, “GO GET SOME EXERCISE YOU COUCH POTATO!”  Anyway, the context of the verses in 1 Corinthians 6 has nothing to do with eating, smoking or drinking.  It’s not criticizing what’s physically unhealthy, but what’s spiritually unhealthy; don’t use your body for sexual sin and thus dishonor God with it.
Some thought equating smoking with eating bad food–or failing to exercise was mixing apples and oranges.  After all, a person has to eat, but doesn’t have to smoke or drink.  True.  Irrelevant.  My point was that when we think of other Christians who smoke or who drink in moderation as spiritually inferior–or disobedient, we don’t have a biblical leg to stand on.

What if our children hear the pastor say it’s ok to smoke and drink?  First, simply because the Bible doesn’t prohibit something doesn’t mean it can go on in my home or yours.  I would never have permitted our children to smoke at our house.  Or drink before they were 21 and legally allowed to do so.  And even though I know the Bible doesn’t forbid drinking, I don’t drink at all, and it’s what I advocate.  I told my son, “You know that although the Bible condemns drunkenness, that I don’t believe or teach that the Bible forbids all drinking of alcohol.  But I think that’s the wisest course of action, and in this culture, best serves our Savior.”
I worry about causing a worse disaster by my words than that a young person feels free to smoke a pack of Marlboros or get a six-pack of Bud.  I fear that unless I clearly disrobe the gospel of works, some young person might conclude that he/she can become acceptable to God by behavior.  Or add something to Christ’s work by behavior.  I have seen that again and again in the church: people who believe that they are born again because they behave.  At least they do on the outside.
In trying to strip the gospel of all works in that sermon, perhaps I didn’t make enough qualifications, enough “yes, buts”.  If I overstated the case to the degree that someone understood me to not just open the door to smoking but say, adultery, it was not because I want to be loose on adultery.  It’s because I want to be tight on the gospel.  I fear confusing the gospel is an even greater risk than endorsing sin.  I have come to agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the British pastor of the last century who said: If your preaching of the gospel doesn’t provoke the charge from some of antinomianism [refusing to keep rules], you’re not preaching the gospel.”

In Christianity, legalism means to add some behavior to the work of Christ as a requirement of faith.  John Hendryx, a prominent blogger has given this helpful definition of legalism: “Legalism is a distortion of the gospel which denies that Jesus Christ is completely sufficient for salvation. That some additional element of self-effort, merit or faithfulness on our part is necessary to either attain or maintain a just standing before God. (Gal.3:3).

Now for the “Yes, but”.  Does a true Christian sin willy-nilly?  No.  No.  No!  For several reasons:
  • When God saves, He changes the heart.  Which leads to obedience.  (1 John 3:6-9 makes clear that the person who claims to be a Christian yet has an ongoing practice of sin, is not truly born again. 
  • When God does a true work of grace and saves a person, He changes her heart with the result that the works God prepared for her to do, do follow  (Phil.1:6; Eph.2:8-10).  
  • Those works are not perfect.  Or constant.  But because God the Spirit lives in her, obedience to God is initiated by Him.  She responds but the initiative is supernatural; it’s His (Phil.2:13).
  • Because of Christ’s love for us in the gospel, a desire to please Him has replaced our old desire to find pleasure in sin (2 Cor.15:14-15).  

It would break my heart to discover that any of my words led people into sin.  But it would break into even smaller pieces if my words conveyed a muddied gospel embedded with hints that avoiding things like smoking or drinking could add to it–or take away from it.  Which is what I fear behavioral teaching can so easily do without meaning to.  Love God and live as you please.  (Augustine)