Vanishing kingdom. (Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in the fog [Photo credit: dynamosquito])

Vanishing kingdom. (Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in the fog [Photo credit: dynamosquito])

Last week, we looked at faith alone in Christ alone and putting Jesus’ words into practice. This week, we’ll take a closer look at his gospel.

Gospel means news, message, announcement. Jesus’ gospel is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and “unless you surpass [get past] the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter.” (Mat. 4:17, 5:20) For brevity’s sake, I’ll condense righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees into ROTSAP.

Jesus’ primary mission was to proclaim and manifest the kingdom of heaven. Everything he did (miracles, death, resurrection) was to show the power and reality of his news, the gospel. “I must preach the kingdom.” (Luk. 4:43)

John the Baptist preached it, too (Mat. 3:2). So did Peter (1Pet. 1:11), James (Jas. 2:5), and Philip (Act. 8:12).

Fifty years later, Paul did, too. “From morning till evening he declared the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus… Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God….” (Act. 28:23, 31) “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son…” (Col.1:13) “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you….” (1Cor. 15:1)

Today, we get that backwards. By misreading Paul, death and forgiveness have become the new, entire gospel, with the kingdom mentioned only in passing. Some theologians even say that Jesus didn’t preach the gospel at all—only Paul did! If you’ve ever been confused between Jesus and Paul, this is one reason why.

So it’s crucial to restore Jesus’ gospel. Faith alone in Christ alone. Anything else keeps us blind and crippled, disconnected from the Head, and we’ll never get past the spiritual bankruptcy of ROTSAP.

“Woe to you Pharisees. You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying.” (Mat. 23:13)

 “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’” (Mat. 10:7)

What Is the Kingdom of Heaven?

To see how far the kingdom has vanished from Christian thought today, I’ve been a Christian for 40 years, but until 10 years ago, never knew what the kingdom of heaven is. Like millions, I thought it’s where you go when you die—a vague realm of no real substance because it’s detached from anything solid. So I believed that it’s something set aside from “normal” life.

But I discovered something: If you understand any kingdom not so much as a place, but as the range of its ruler’s effective will, things get clearer. A kingdom is a community—a system or environment in which what the ruler wants done gets done.  

Also, as a function of will, a kingdom is part of the ruler’s being and reflects his/her character. The Nazi regime, for example, was Hitler’s kingdom in which whatever he wanted done got done.

The kingdom of heaven is simply the range of God’s effective will and is part of His being. It isn’t a place, but a way of living, a suitable environment, community, and system of well-being (“blessedness”).

So?

Jesus’ gospel announces that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, or near. He didn’t mean “coming soon” or “far away but getting closer.” He meant all around, as close as the air we breathe. Available. Accessible. And it’s precisely “from heaven” all around that God manifests Himself and interacts with mankind.

Everyone, including the spiritually handicapped and destitute, is within God’s range! That’s why Jesus began his good news with an astounding intro of hope for the multitudes bankrupted by the Pharisee system. “Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is yours.” (Mat. 5:3) They’re about to be enriched in a kingdom that grows like a mustard seed even while some resist it.

The good news is that the kingdom of heaven is already in our midst. The not-so-good news is that we’re not living fully in it. Nor are people aware that it’s possible to tap into its unlimited resources for normal, everyday life.

How Do You Enter, Then?

By seeking. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” (Mat. 6:33) I seek Jesus’ expertise and the well-being found within his system. How? By “yoking” with him and doing what he says to do: surpass ROTSAP.

Well, how do you do that? I obey Jesus, abide in him. Faith alone in Christ alone. I repent of dysfunctional systems and models, become like a child with a tutor, and start practicing what he laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s where he’s “hidden” the keys to a new life in the kingdom. If When I make mistakes, that’s where forgiveness comes in. Jesus has me covered. I can try again without dying.

Now, personally, I’m not a fan of the word “obey” because, like other good words, it’s been misused. It often smacks of something extracted by force, so I prefer abide, follow, or practice.

But I think we follow Jesus the way tabloids follow the Kardashians. We report every move he made, every word he said, what he wore and where he ate, but don’t obey him. We’re too afraid of “works.” Then we honestly wonder when the Christlike “new me” will show up.

If we share this with Christian friends, we’re told that our faith is weak, we’re not praying/confessing hard enough or often enough, or we’re just sinners “saved by grace” who will never measure up. So we “lift up” Jesus’ name and accept the “fact” that no one can really be like him in normal life. Our only hope, then, shifts to the next life—that vague, disconnected realm where forgiveness is all that matters.

But it doesn’t explain how forgiven, but very un-Christlike people could safely rule the earth with him. And it isn’t Jesus’ gospel.

Next week: seeking and finding his keys.

 

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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.

            *                      *                      *                      *

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.

A ca. 6 months old Winter White Russian Dwarf ...Jesus didn’t make sense to me until I grasped his view of life, the soul, and salvation. The following was a huge revelation:

  • Life is the whole life, a single continuum from conception through physical death, extending to the afterlife, then bodily resurrection, and, as Bud Lightyear would say, to infinity and beyond.
  • A soul is the whole person, the self—mind, heart, body/substance, and behavior/relationships. When God saves a soul, He doesn’t save a piece of the person and forget the rest. Even after death, people continue to think, act, and interact with other people and creatures.
  • Ruin is to be broken, dysfunctional. Lost means to be out of place. Both are Death.
  • Salvation is deliverance from Death. It restores the whole person and entire life to compatible place with God and others. It is life lived with Him wherever you are.
  • Forgiveness is to salvation what birth is to living.

Accordingly, the gospel is about new life, about becoming the kind of person Jesus is in mind, spirit, body, and behavior. The good news is that God’s kingdom is here and at hand for any soul who wants to enter that life. Disciple-students of Jesus learn from him how to live in freedom, the power of knowing God, and secure love for one another.

You enter God’s kingdom not by dying or by drifting, but by living—by venturing on Jesus. In a word, you seek. God, of course, wants to be sought and delights in being found. That’s why He doesn’t barge through our doors. He also seeks us and celebrates when we’re found. (more…)

Footprints
Footprints (Photo credit: Peter Nijenhuis)

Practicing the presence of God is the preliminary step to all other Christian practices. It isn’t something you do once or twice or just on Sunday. It’s a life-style that facilitates loving God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul—not because God needs His ego fed, but because it sets you up for filling with positive things.

Obviously, if you don’t see the Spirit of God as having qualities you admire and want for yourself, you won’t have much incentive to seek them. (I don’t mean His omni-qualities that no human being will ever gain. I mean love, competence, intelligence, strength, compassion, etc.)

Assuming the desire, it’s possible to develop inner Christ-like qualities (spirit) that naturally result in Christ-like behavior—“Christ formed within you” (Gal. 4:19). But trying to be Christ-like by merely conforming to right behavior short-circuits the spiritual process and you’ll eventually burn out. Jesus compares it to a house built on sand that comes crashing down (Mat. 7:26-27).

Burdens

Two different philosophies set you up for the crash:

(1.) Behavior and obedience are top priority. Don’t break the rules. If you do, the right rituals and prayers will atone for it, so the sort of person you are is of little consequence.

This is the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus says people must get past (surpass). They cleaned the outside of the cup, but the inside remained full of negative qualities (Mat. 23:25-26). Their idea of redemption was that as long as people tithed correctly, got circumcised, or avoided murder, they could be as full of greed or anger, for example, as the next guy.

 (2.) Behavior and obedience don’t matter. You’ll always break the rules. So, having the right beliefs, particularly in forgiveness or gratitude, is top priority. The sort of person you are is of little consequence as long as God finds the correct doctrines in your mind.

This is today’s idea of “right with God” among most Christians. This version of redemption is that people can be as full of anger or greed, for example, as the next guy as long as they believe they’re just sinners “saved” by grace. Instead of avoiding sin, it’s about avoiding guilt and punishment.

In either case, people learn to act like Christ rather than be like Christ; and acting is a heavy burden to maintain. By contrast, the way of salvation is much lighter—a gift from God to develop inner goodness that’ll shine on the outside with much less effort. C.S. Lewis noted, “Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is.” (more…)

  

DVD cover of the Region 2 Essential Collection...

DVD cover of the Region 2 Essential Collection release. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Parts 1-4, we sampled four of six habits, common to people of all cultures and time periods, that Jesus warned of in his Sermon on the Mount: Willful anger and contempt, an adulterous mind-set, swearing oaths, and score-keeping.

Each fortifies the next in a chain reaction that creates a toxic spirit incapable of loving anyone, including yourself and enemies, as Jesus does.

The bad news is that these habits are often seen as right and good, so people protect them the way a drug addict protects his supply. But the more the poison builds up, the more conditioned you are to react negatively at the slightest provocation. It owns you.

The good news is that as you flush each one and God blesses your obedience, the clearer your vision and mind become, and the more conditioned you are to not return insults with better ones. You’ll soon be blessing those who curse you and loving enemies the way Jesus does.

Poison #5

So, the fifth sneaky habit Jesus warns of is outer appearance, reputation, and the need to look good for public approval. In a word, image. The old fashioned term is “vanity.” (more…)

English: Chain leash

Suppose I own two dogs, Rover and Fido. Rover needs a leash every time we go for a walk. Without it, he runs all over the neighborhood, puts himself in constant danger, and makes himself a nuisance to neighbors. I can’t trust him.

But Fido doesn’t need a leash. He happily sniffs and explores, but stays right with me no more than a few feet away. While Rover needs an external means to obey, which really isn’t obedience at all, Fido is a picture of the transforming walk with Jesus.

God wants to trust us to rule and serve with Him the way he designed us to. He doesn’t want rules or external means to control us; He wants us to control ourselves. Scripture speaks of gaining self-control and Christ-like character through practice with Jesus.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2Pet. 1:5-8)

Leash Mentality

When Jesus teaches “don’t swear,” but to simply let your Yes be yes and No be no , he’s addressing internal self-control, good judgment, and freedom versus external swearing, insistence, or proving good behavior. (more…)

Folk art Valentine and envelope dated 1875 add...

 Despite what we hear, we’re actually not self-centered people. We’re very others-focused. If only the “sinful government,” unreasonable bosses, snippy neighbors, cheating lovers, mouthy teenagers, and incompetent drivers would just get their acts together, life would be grand, wouldn’t it?

While trying to defend ourselves against their incompetence, rather than launch the power of grace we engage in constant conflict because we insist on correcting others. Then we wonder where all the peace and victory is that biblical Christians voiced. We conclude, perhaps, that it must not be in this life, but in the afterlife.

Vanity

I used to believe that my Christian duty is to verbalize all the sinful short-comings of people around me. We tend to obsess over how the other guy falls short or otherwise gets in our faces. Boy, was I embarrassed when I learned what a vice that can be! Pride is the pre-disposition to insist on having our way. Humbleness is the ability to not insist on having our way. Vanity is the most camouflaged sin because on the surface, it appears to focus on the self, when in reality, it aims at others.

One way we’re lured into the trap is with the mistaken idea that it’s always good to be dependent on one another. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” is one of many ways the world puts our well-being largely in the hands of others.

Today’s Christian spin on this is that God designed us to be dependent on one another and gave us different gifts specifically to ensure that we remain dependent. Thus, service to others is commonly preached as a mandatory commitment we owe rather than something to volunteer out of a victorious love for life. (more…)