Agape

Agape (Photo credit: danakin)

Probably most Christians—pastors and laypeople alike—are confused about biblical love. So if even they’re clueless, how can rest of the world understand?

After last week’s post, a reader asked if blessing those who curse us, loving enemies, and doing good is service or love. My answer was that there’s no difference between them. Service is simply one way that love manifests. So is patience, kind deeds, hospitality, encouraging words, prayer, or any other quality of good character.

The best way I’ve found keep love (agape, good will) in context is to use the phrase, “promote the good” in place of “love.” Agape is the word used in loving neighbors as self, among other verses. Thus, “promote the good of your neighbors as you would yourself.” Or, “If you promote the good of only those who promote yours, what are you doing so remarkable? Don’t even tax collectors do that?” Or, “For God so willed the good of the world…,” “speak the truth in good will,” and so on.

There’s nothing special about willing the good of friends, family, and people you like. Even gang members do that. But willing it for enemies involves invoking God to help you. (I can always tell where my heart is by what I sincerely ask God to do.) For example, if you want to love the guy who just stole your car, but you certainly don’t like him, you ask God to somehow bring about his good. That’s how you love and bless an enemy.

You may never know how he ends up, but that’s not your responsibility. On the other hand, God might answer with a police chase where he’s seriously injured after wrecking your car. Maybe he nearly dies. Maybe God meets him in that experience and his life turns around.

Loving enemies doesn’t mean we’re responsible for the outcome, although we can often influence it. We’re responsible for our own character and behavior, and praying for enemies promotes our good and well-being regardless how they turn out. God is always the author and finisher; you’re the contributor. That’s how you love Him and promote His good. (more…)

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Juggler

Juggler (Photo credit: anadelmann)

Continuing from last week, transformation from death to life starts with the realization that we’re jumbled, broken souls, but not worthless souls.

You and I can humbly acknowledge our ruined condition without self-contempt, for that’s a seed that lays deep roots and grows into a spirit of contempt for others.

It creates double-mindedness and a divided heart instead of an undivided one. How can you love neighbors consistently or be spontaneously kind to enemies when you’re not even prepared to love yourself?

The person you are inside is the person you are when your guard is down—like after you’ve had too much wine. Everyone knows the happy drunk or the belligerent drunk, and it’s common to hear, “That was the alcohol talking last night.” But it was really the true person sneaking out when alcohol put the guard to sleep.

A member of my family was married years ago to a charming guy who became verbally and physically abusive when he drank. When he was sober, he was always deeply, genuinely, terribly sorry. He tearfully pleaded for (and received) forgiveness. But he never changed.

The fact is regret alone has no transformative power. Forgiveness alone won’t move you into the promised land of wellness. While these are necessary components of Christian repentance, the driving force behind transformation is a clear vision of who you can become, the willing choice to change, a sensible, knowledgeable way to do it, and then following it. God supplies everything but the willingness and the following. (more…)

WARNINGS

Poison Warnings (Photo credit: hugovk)

Parts 1 and 2 looked at the top two toxic habits common to people of all cultures and time periods. They remain entrenched because we either believe them to be good (willful anger and contempt) or don’t realize we’re harboring them (an adulterous spirit that divorces God’s kind of love). Therefore, we’re in no great hurry to get rid of them.

Unfortunately, they intensify poison #3: swearing oaths. This is another broad, sneaky category that includes promises, commitments, or keeping one’s word, which always seem right and good, but can backfire into hard-hearted stubbornness and pride. So when Jesus addressed this in his Sermon on the Mount, he advised to not swear at all. Instead, just let your Yes be yes and No be no. “Anything further comes from the evil one.”

Warning: May Cause Blindness

Tied to this is insistence—insistence on winning arguments, for example, or forcing others to live up to our expectations, standards, or demands. Swearing and insistence are a common form of spiritual adultery that can kill a loving, gracious spirit. The opposite would be to not force or press a claim, one positive definition of the Greek word for divorce (apoluo).

I’ve said in other posts that the basic definition of pride is a pre-disposition to insist on having your way. It’s the opposite of love and brings with it impatience, unkindness, ego, compulsion, manipulation, and all sorts of inner and outer turmoil. (more…)

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (Photo credit: bamalibrarylady)

Yesterday, Part 1 brought up the debate over how the Law, grace, atonement, character, and faith relate, and the confusion over Paul’s apparent conflict with Jesus’ teaching.

Many people believe that Paul sort of trumps Jesus because Paul’s preaching is more “updated” after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But this has a sneaky way of making Paul the reigning expert and Lord instead of Jesus. It’s unintentional, of course, but nevertheless dominant in church thinking today.

If you want a good example, just ask any pastor, layperson, or yourself what the Gospel is. Ninety-nine percent will quote a dozen verses from Paul, but not a single quote from Jesus. (More info here: A Badly Needed Clearer Gospel.)

I myself did this for decades. But it’s just one of many inadvertent forms of “harlotry” that I now call The Great Substitution.

Lover or Hater?

At any rate, with the preliminaries from Part 1 in mind, let’s look at what Paul says in the book of Romans about the relationship between life, death, spirit, and Law. We’ll see he isn’t the Law-hater he’s been assumed to be, both in his day and ours. It’s the letter (or “works”) of the law and Death he opposes, while he loves the true Law and working of grace. In fact, all his epistles repeat this theme. And, to my great relief and amazement, he’s right in sync with Jesus.

Romans 7:6

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” Followers of Christ are “dead” to rule-following and alive to God because Jesus abolished Death, not love.

Romans 8:2

“…because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”

Romans 8:4

“…in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”

Thankfully, because God changed His tactics by sending Jesus to abolish Death, He doesn’t require flawless obedience. He simply wants honest practice and growth—fruit. Thus, the fruit of the Spirit that Paul teaches in Gal. 5:22 (love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness) is precisely the righteous requirements of the Law he teaches here.

Anyone who says you cannot change your sinful nature underestimates the transformative power of human spirit working in conjunction with divine Spirit. Sure, by yourself you can’t do it. But that’s different from doing it with help from Jesus, the now-living, fully competent Expert on life.

Romans 2:13

“For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” This agrees with James, who says we shouldn’t be hearers of the Word only, but doers of the Word (Jas. 1:22-23).

Romans 3:31

“Do we, then, nullify the law by [our] faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” Jesus won’t obey for us, but he will show us how to keep God’s commands. Grace and substitutionary atonement mean that his atonement substitutes for our atonement, not our obedience.

That’s why we no longer need repeated animal sacrifice but are still accountable to the Law’s intent. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shows the way in great detail; faith means we follow his instruction because we trust that he, more than anyone else, knows what he’s talking about.

Romans 13:9

“The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Old Yet New Again

In Jhn. 13:34, Jesus gave a “new” command to love one another as he loved us, but it wasn’t new because God had just recently thought it up. It was new because people hadn’t heard it from their leaders. This mind of the Spirit was almost a foreign concept that had to be reintroduced. “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as their teachers of the law.” (Mrk. 1:22)

In the Pharisees’ day, God had already proven His point through Israel’s long history that human virtue isn’t a matter of following divine rules. That doesn’t mean God wasted His time or that the Law was no good and should be thrown out. It means that mankind had reached a pre-determined point, ready for the game-changer: Jesus, the Messiah and Savior.

He teaches and demonstrates what kind of person lets the Law of love flow from the inside, thereby becoming well enough (“fit”) to live with God in His great kingdom of love. Regardless what tactics God uses over time to teach the world, His prime message is consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments.

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD.” (Psa. 119:1) Not because they have to, but because it’s who they are in spirit.

 

 

Bible Study 1

Bible Study 1 (Photo credit: DrGBB)

The spirit of the Law, as opposed to the letter of the Law, is what matters to God. It’s about heart, will, spirit, nature, or character, which is where the legalistic Pharisees went afoul.

Not all people who keep the Law are righteous. And people who don’t keep the Law are not righteous. But all righteous people keep the Law—not flawlessly, but wholeheartedly in the Spirit of love and joy.

Today, the debate rages on over how the Law, grace, atonement, and faith relate. It’s easy to get confused by apparent contradictions in Paul’s letters, or seeming conflict between Paul and Jesus. The incorrect premise is that through the cross, Jesus abolished the Law. But what he actually abolished, for the joy set before him, was spiritual Death.

God’s Law is Good

This act of grace on God’s part allows us to safely re-learn how to live in the goodness of His ways. But, according to Paul, the sinful mind opposes the Spirit and therefore does not, and cannot, correctly submit to God’s Law.

Of course, the Law by itself won’t make you a good person any more than traffic rules will make you a good driver because no one, including God, can legislate morality. No law has transformative power. But spirit and intent does, including the spirit of God’s Law.

So it isn’t some evil thing to avoid. After all, it’s as much God’s Word as anything else is. Cheerful, willing practice brings increasing competence and blessedness. “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2Cor. 3:6)

Grace and faith don’t kill obedience, but rather, bring it to life, although God expects it to be child-like and clumsy at first. That’s okay, and in fact, necessary; and that’s good news!

Preliminary Thoughts Toward the Mind of the Spirit

As I wrote in another post, and to shed light on the confusion, it’s important to first distinguish between secondary laws like clean vs. unclean food, tithing, circumcision, etc., and the Law, the Ten Commandments. Jesus boiled the Law down to two commands: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Paul boiled it down to one: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal. 5:14) And James put it this way: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” (Jas. 2:8) All three men are quoting Leviticus 19:18, the Law of the Spirit and spirit of the Law.

We should also assume Jesus to be the prime Expert on anything and everything. No Pharisee, priest, prophet, apostle, scholar, or institution overrides him; and he never cancelled the Law. So really, no amount of worship, confession, prayer, “belief,” bible study, speaking in tongues, or witnessing can honor the Lord if his Law is ignored because, according to him, “If you want life, obey the commandments.” (Mat. 19:17) Again, we’re looking at spirit, intent, and desire as opposed to a grim, outward image of compliance.

Enduring Wisdom

Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Mat. 5:17-18)

“It’s easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” (Luk. 16:17)

With his fine intellect and wit, Jesus often addressed serious issues with a touch of sarcastic humor, aimed mostly at bombastic Pharisees who imposed heavy life-style burdens. He knew that neither heaven nor Earth would be disappearing anytime soon; so these remarks showed just how serious he was about the true Law, yet simultaneously told misguided Pharisees to lighten up.

Heaven and Earth still haven’t gone away and everything is not yet accomplished. Therefore, if we’re to take Jesus seriously, we should understand that the Law remains in effect today. It’s silly to call him Lord if we’re going to disregard him, and even more ridiculous to pit the cross, the ultimate act of love, against the Law, the ultimate policy of love, both of which come from God who is love.

So when Jesus says to keep the commandments, he doesn’t mean to go get circumcised and make a burnt offering, or be sure to stone your neighbors when they wrong you. He means to become a healthy person who happily thinks and carries out acts of love.

Tomorrow (rather than next week), with these preliminaries in mind, Part 2 will look at what Paul has to say in the book of Romans. You might be as pleasantly surprised as I was that there’s less confusion than most of us have been taught.

 

 

 

Question mark

Image via Wikipedia

We must understand the nature and purpose of grace. Christians are all over the map, embroiled in all sorts of debates because we fail to comprehend that grace isn’t a one-time thing; it is God’s ongoing action in our lives. As Dallas Willard says, it works like fuel to enable us to do something.

We also fail to understand that salvation isn’t a one-time decision; it’s a process, a journey, a course designed by God. The definition of salvation is, simply, life with God. The result is “new life from above.” That new-life course is fueled by grace to obey because grace and obedience go hand in hand. If we treat either one as a stand-alone, we suffer the consequences in this life and the afterlife.

Jesus explains very clearly that no one enters the kingdom of heaven unless they’re born twice. First, physically, i.e., by “water,” then spiritually, by Spirit. (Jhn. 3:5) No one considers the moment of physical birth to be the whole life. It’s simply the beginning. So also, the moment of spiritual birth isn’t the whole new life with God, i.e., salvation. It’s merely the beginning. (more…)