July 2013


Gift box

Gift box (Photo credit: sparkieblues)

I think Christians agree that grace is a free gift from God. But they argue over how it relates to faith, behavior, and redemption.

In the Christian circles I come from, I think we need a functional definition of faith. And the best I’ve ever heard came from a wise, old pastor. “To have faith means to act as if something were true.”

I board an airline flight because I have faith that it’ll get me where I want to go. I refrain from jumping off a bridge because I have faith that gravity will turn me into a gelatinous blob when I hit the ground.

One day, I decided to test this definition. I went to my Scripture search engine, entered the words “faith is,” selected the New Testament and NIV Bible, and specified only what Paul wrote containing that phrase. I figured I’d get plenty starting with just that, and sure enough, I got six pages of verses.

Scanning through them, I mentally substituted the word “faith” with “acting as if Christ (or what he says to do) is true.” Ding, ding, ding—the clarity it brought was amazing! Hebrews 11 is an entire chapter on faith and action. And this didn’t even count the other NT writers.

The great thing about authentic Christian faith is that it isn’t blind, irrational, reckless, or a blank. It’s confident and certain. Faith always acts (even if restraint is the action) and is always “creditable” as right for this reason.

Yet somehow, over centuries of drift, and particularly the last 350 years or so, a “saving faith” in Christ has come to mean the opposite: inaction. Modern evangelical leaders and churches teach that human action in their own redemption process is sinful, not righteous. “Works!” they cry, as if warning of a plague; as if faith excludes effort and obedience; as if workers are too many rather than too few.

Grace Unwrapped

So we need to define grace, too. Like faith, it’s also action. For example, God’s grace is His continual action in my life and the lives of countless others throughout history. My grace is my action in the lives of others. So, for Christians, grace is the basis of interactive relationship with both God and neighbors.

Also like faith, grace doesn’t exclude effort; it excludes earning. God’s grace is a free gift because no one can earn it. But it doesn’t cancel obedience. It empowers and amplifies it. If grace were money, it would function like any other grant, precisely to enable work, not kill it. This is hardly surprising from a God who not only created us to do good works, but prepared them in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).

Yet for many people, to “accept” God’s grace means to merely carry it around like a package all wrapped in ribbon. They never open it or study its contents. To me, this explains the passive, empty faith so prevalent in sincere, but confused and powerless Christians.

How much better to open the gift and use it! It’s like finding a map, a flashlight, and instructions, along with an invitation and a coupon for unlimited consultation with Christ on how life works and how to live it to the max. For “life to the full,” as he put it, is the best definition of redemption there is.

In this light, his Great Commission makes more sense: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Mat. 28:19-20) Once you understand faith and grace as action—God’s and yours—the phrase “faith alone in Christ alone” engages like warp engines on the Enterprise. And you can move mountains.

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I’m taking the next few weeks off from writing. As vital as action-oriented faith is, it’s equally important to rest. So I want to re-charge, something else Jesus says to do and which, I must confess, he practiced more faithfully than I do.

The family lake vacation is coming in early August and my oldest son and his girlfriend will be joining us from out of state. My daughter’s fiancé (he just popped the question this past weekend…EEEEEE!) will join us for the first time, too. Plus, two books I got for Christmas—Heaven is for Real and Spirit of the Disciplines—are collecting dust, still unread. So I can’t wait to relax and celebrate, catch up and have no agenda. It’s good for the soul.

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English: Bratislava; New Year 2005; FireWorks

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Sometimes, “God loves you” can sound patronizing and meaningless because, in my experience, Christian culture often seems to be on a mission to minimize human value.

For example, suppose you increase sales at work, or write a fantastic term paper, or run a great Sunday school class. Some would say that you had nothing to do with it, that it’s simply “Christ living in you.” Any other response brings accusations of pride and embezzling God’s glory—except when things go wrong. Then it’s all you.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” is the mantra of many Christians. But I rarely hear the rest of that verse in the same breath. “…and [all] are justified freely by his grace” through Christ (Rom. 3:23-24). So it’s easy to conclude that humanity has little value or anything worth celebrating in God’s eyes.

Yet Scripture consistently reaffirms human value, even when we sin. Jesus’ earthly mission was to restore to mankind God’s vision of worth and to give his own life to defend it by abolishing spiritual Death.

You can tell what’s valuable by what people celebrate or the way they behave when something’s lost. What do you do when you can’t find your keys or wallet? Likewise, you can tell what God values. In Luke 15, Jesus illustrates this with three consecutive parables, so it must be an important point. (more…)