Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Praying for God's Grace?

For some reason I have set up a tracker on this blog to remind me of how few people read it. But one of the most interesting side benefits of Sitemeter, other than humility, is that it shows me where the visitor came from, geographically as well as digitally. And if the referring site was a search engine like Google or Yahoo, it also shows me what the visitor's search query was. Very interesting sometimes. Amazing what searches will lead people to The Den.

And one of the most frequent searches that bring cyber-visitors here is "prayer for God's grace" or some close variation. They usually end up visiting a post I did some time ago about God's amazing grace in even hearing or listening to the prayers of sinful and rebellious people like us. Never mind the amazing grace of God in choosing His people for eternal life, in sending and sacrificing Jesus Christ on behalf of His people, in doing so only on the basis of His sovereign love and justice, and all the other expressions of His undeserved favor. Just the fact that He even listens to the selfish, whining pleas of human beings is an act of grace beyond my comprehension.

But it seems to me that there's something more implicit in this frequent search phrase. It seems as if people are looking for a means to enter into or be recipients of God's grace. They want to know how to pray to get His grace. They're looking for a set of words, a formula, a mystical incantation that will result in God being obligated to send His favor to them. So they go where so many of us go in this i-age whenever we need to find something out. We Google it. These people go to the vast shared knowledge of the entire world contained on the Internet in an effort to find the key to God's favor, just like they'd search for a recipe for spam salad or guacamole.

But doesn't that seem like a concept that's totally incongruous with grace? The idea that we can find some set of words that if uttered in sincerity will automatically result in God showing His undeserved favor to us? Grace, by definition, cannot be appropriated or coerced, from God or anyone else. It is a gift freely given, under no obligation to do so. In fact, this kind of idea that God's grace can be manipulated is in some sense like a meritorious work which puts God in our debt to favor us. It's expressed by Paul in Romans 4:4 like this: "Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due." If we seek to obligate God to show us favor, we are in reality seeking to earn it. Which is impossible.

But there's also a sense in which we must pray for God's grace in order to receive it. But not by murmuring some formulaic prayer that will indebt God to us. Rather, the Bible indicates that the words that we utter to seek God's favor are less important than the attitude and heart condition that we bring to the request. We read in James 4:6 that "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble." This principle is all through the Old and New Testament. The prerequisite for receiving God's undeserved favor is an attitude of humility, repentance, dependence and need. And this is true both in the initial receipt of God's grace in saving faith, as well as the day to day reception of God's sustaining grace in the life of His people. God's grace can only be received by those who acknowledge their deep need for it, and their complete lack of deservedness of it.

I hope that those of you Googling for "a prayer for God's grace" find this post. And that you also find the true and sufficient grace of God in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, accessed by your recognition of your need for Him as payment for your sin, and your expression of that need in trust and faith and repentance. Then, and only then, will you find what you really need.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Slacker Excuses Post

This is the post where I make excuses to rationalize my not posting anything at all for the past three weeks. There, I said it right up front. The 2 or 3 of you who occasionally read this backwater blog know what's coming now.

But truthfully, there's been so many things going on and competing for my attention lately that I haven't had the blog post itch for a while. Spent a week in Kansas City with the family on vacation, that was fun and a nice getaway. Also a fair amount of work-related stuff going on lately that's occupied much of my energy. Including being invited to be a keynote speaker at a business conference in Australia in November, and dealing with the arrangements and such that go with that (including taking the family along - Thanksgiving down under this year!)

And a variety of ministry stuff happening. Continuing to teach a weekly Sunday morning study of James, one of my favorite epistles. Starting to work on writing a study of the epistle of Jude to follow that with (and trying to get son Matt to help me with it.) And also working (slowly and intermittently) on an introductory Christian apologetics class to be taught as part of a new evening equipping ministry we'll be launching in September. While still teaching folks in the New Life program at the local Rescue Mission once a week. And in addition, serving with some Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters on a task force to expand and integrate our bilingual ministries at HPEFC.

That along with all the normal summer family stuff like daughter's softball games and tournament, son's marching band clinic at the University of Nebraska, etc, etc, and life seems pretty full. Oh, and also trying to keep up with my cycling to hit my 2000 mile target for the summer. And of course July has been filled with tracking the Tour de France on a daily basis. Gotta have my priorities.

So OK, there's my busy list. How's it compare to yours? Yeah, not so impressive. But reality is that I've been in a bit of a desert for a while now, when it comes to having anything meaningful and edifying to share here. And I think that is largely sourced in the general spiritual lethargy that's characterized my life at HPEFC during the transitional season we've been in since last fall when our long time senior pastor was called elsewhere. But there's an oasis in sight on that front, as finally this weekend we'll be meeting and hearing from a pastoral candidate who is a great exegetical and expository preacher and a gospel-centered shepherd. Looking much forward to that, and to the next level of ministry Christ will call us to with such a leader.

So there, I posted something. And by God's grace He'll provide the desire and thoughts to continue to do so. Thanks for reading...

Friday, July 3, 2009

Orthodoxy and Obedience

So I seem to keep encountering points of view that make a contrast between the need for right doctrine, and the need for right practice. A point of view that sees these two focal points of the Christian life in terms of "camps" or opposite ends of the spectrum. A dichotomy between orthodoxy and obedience. There's a lot of "evangelicals" today who want to focus on "following Jesus", but not so much on knowing doctrine. After all, doctrine divides, right? And isn't the church of Jesus Christ supposed to be marked by unity and love for one another, not debates and battles over fine points of theology? Can't we just follow Jesus and His teachings and forget about all that messy doctrinal stuff? Isn't it enough to just love Jesus and be like Him?

While reading again through Colossians this past week, I came across a passage that seems to put aside this notion of separation between orthodoxy and obedience, and instead proves them to be inextricably linked. Read with me Colossians 2:6-7:

Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.
Paul starts this passage with a command, to conduct ourselves in a manner consistent with how we have received Christ. Note that this is different than his command in Ephesians 4:1 to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. Here instead we're commanded to walk in Christ in the same way we have received Him as Savior and Lord. So how do we do that? Paul goes on to explain.

Look at the tense of the next phrase - "having been firmly rooted...in Him" Past tense, referring to the point of conversion. We as believers in Christ have been firmly rooted in our salvation in Jesus Christ, in His person and His work and His gospel truth. In a word - doctrine. And this past tense occurrence has an ongoing present tense work - "now being built up in Him." Growing in Christ, in our knowledge of Him and our depth of relationship with Him and in our conformance to His character. Again, centered on the person and work and gospel truth of Jesus Christ. Founded on sound doctrine.

Which is exactly what Paul says next - "established in your faith." Here referring to the foundation of our receiving and being built up in Christ as our "faith", the body of sound doctrine that constitutes true Christian faith, the faith once for all handed down to the saints, and not simply our own personal trust in that body of truth.

And to make that clear, Paul points to where we received these sound doctrinal truths that are the root, the building up, the establishment of our faith - "just as you were instructed." Teaching, instruction in the word and truths of the gospel and the sound doctrines of the faith. This whole passage assumes the doctrinal teaching of the essential truths of Christian faith as the basis for receiving Christ and as the basis for living in obedience to Christ. To paraphrase: you were taught the truths of Jesus Christ, you received Him based on these truths, your faith in Him is founded on these truths, you are growing in grace and knowledge through the ongoing teaching of these truths, so now continue to live in them the same way. A continuous line linking orthodoxy and obedience.

And finally, Paul describes the outcome of such a life of obedience based on orthodoxy - "overflowing with gratitude." Obedience that is based in and founded on doctrinal truth will be accompanied by, and in fact motivated by, an overwhelming thankfulness for the gospel of Christ. The more we understand the deeper doctrines of God's grace and mercy and justice in Jesus Christ, the more we are aware of how great our salvation is, and the more grateful we will be to Him for His sovereign grace, and the more motivated we will be to live a life that pleases and glorifies Him. A superficial understanding of the doctrinal truths of the gospel of Christ will inevitably lead to a superficial obedience.

So, do you want to be an obedient follower of Jesus? Then drink deep from the well of doctrinal truth that He Himself has revealed about Himself. Go beyond the simple "Jesus loved me and died for my sin" statement of faith and discover the how, why, what and who that lie beneath that simple statement. Embrace the sound teaching of sound and orthodox truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so receive Him, so grow in Him, and so walk in Him.