Thursday, May 27, 2010

License, Legalism, or Grace?

Two common mistakes Christians make are living in legalism or license. Legalism, on the one hand, is the idea that morality = godliness. That is, if I just keep the right rules then I am right with God. I think back to my youth group days. If someone didn’t drink alcohol then they often thought that they were right with God even if in every other area of their life they were as rotten as they could be (for example, mean spirited, judgmental, etc.). Obviously, the keeping of certain rules doesn’t necessarily make us more like God. A point Jesus often made to the Pharisees (see Matthew 23:23-24).

Now, the opposite mistake is to think that living in grace means our morality no longer matters - that I can do whatever I want to do and God doesn’t care. The fancy word for this is antinomianism. I like to call it living in license. The scriptures clearly speak against this type of living. Galatians, one of the books that champions grace, warns “Do not be deceived: God will not be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:7-10).

Freedom does not mean doing whatever I want to do. Freedom means being free to be who God wants me to be. Think about Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods is much freer when it comes to hitting a golf ball than I am. He can do things with a golf ball that I only dream about. It’s not because he does whatever he wants to do in life. It’s because he submits himself to the rigors of practice and training. I don’t. So I am enslaved to my bad golf habits. In much the same way, I’m much freer in my marriage than Tiger Woods is in his. That is, my marriage is much freer to be all it was meant to be because Alyson and I have continued to submit ourselves to the keeping of our promises to one another. Tiger Woods’ doing whatever he wanted to do sexually has enslaved his marriage to misery. All around us this truth holds. Think of an airplane. Airplanes designers can’t do whatever they want and still have their airplane fly. No, for the freedom of flight to happen, they have to submit their design to the rules of aerodynamics.

In the same way, true freedom in Christ isn’t about doing whatever I want, but about doing whatever God wants me to do. Now, I can only start down that road (and continue on that road) by the power of God’s grace. I don’t deserve to be on that journey. But God in his grace does this work in me. Some preacher I have long forgotten put it this way, “God loves us just like we are, but he also loves us enough not to leave us that way.” He is making us new, making us more like him everyday – a work that starts when we put our faith in him and continues until the day he takes us home to be with him (or returns himself!). Legalism thinks that you can achieve Christlikeness on your own or reduces holiness to a handful of rules that are important only to a select group of people. License thinks Christlikeness is unimportant. Both are errors we all make at one time or another. The truth is that most of us struggle with some forms of legalism and some forms of license all at the same time. We have certain rules we equate with godliness and then excuse ourselves on all sorts of other issues that Christ calls our attention to in Scripture. We replace the difficult task of following Christ with a reduced checklist of things we think make us godly (like not drinking alcohol, adhering to certain musical styles, following certain speakers, ideologies, etc.) ignoring Christ’s more difficult commands (loving our enemies, giving generously to the poor, turning the other cheek).

Legalism and license occur because they’re both easier than walking daily with Jesus. But make no mistake, they lead to a counterfeit freedom, one that actually enslaves. It takes daily dependence upon God's grace and a commitment to following Christ’s Spirit to avoid these pitfalls and stay on the narrow path that leads to life.

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge in the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:13-14.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Preaching is the easy part

This past Sunday, my sermon, based upon the story of Paul and Silas singing hymns in prison, encouraged us to sing songs of joy in the midst of suffering. Six years into this preaching thing, I’ve learned that every sermon should come with a disclaimer: What I’m about to say is easier said than done. Case in point, when I arrived home from Sunday’s service I immediately noticed a mildew-like stench in the house. I groaned. We’d had a leak the night before that had spread from the kitchen into the living room. We’d spent hours cleaning it up and setting out fans, doing everything you’re supposed to do. I thought we’d cleaned it all up. And yet, here was this smell convincing me we had not. I searched and prodded and sniffed and discovered another wall the water had penetrated. I started ripping off even more baseboards. In my head I was totaling up the expenses and time that would be required to set this all straight. Just then Alyson walked by and asked, “So, still singing that song?”

She was smiling when she asked it, and meant it as a joke, and I guess I’m at least glad she was listening to the sermon. But as with anything that strikes straight to the heart, I found it more convicting than amusing. We all know that reading and talking about the gospel are a lot easier than living the gospel out. I mean, if I have trouble remaining joyful with something as insignificant as having to repair the flooring in my house, how will I do with even greater struggles? Preaching is the easy part, living, now that’s where the true work begins.

My wife’s comment, which I can now laugh along with, reminds me that true discipleship doesn’t just happen on Sunday mornings, but rather, every other moment of the week. Sunday mornings matter because that’s where we encounter God’s presence together as a community of faith and our hearts are opened to new possibilities through the Spirit of God. But Sunday mornings must inform and affect our Sunday afternoons through Saturday evenings if we are actually to become more like Jesus. Our faith, to borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson, is a pedestrian way. It requires not just the worship of Christ, but walking along after him during the week. It’s here in the rough and tumble of everyday life, in leaky pipes and sarcastic spouses that we have the chance to practice what we preach. We won’t always get it right the first time – but we trust that even in times we miss the mark – God is through his grace getting it right in us.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in him –Col 2:6..

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why we sing

One of the things we often fail to notice is that the Bible is a book full of singing. The longest book of the Bible, the book of Psalms, is nothing but songs. Miriam and Moses belted out a tune after the crossing of the Red Sea. David’s many songs include a sorrowful lament over the death of his friend Jonathan, a hymn of praise over a victory won, and a heart confession over sins committed. The Song of Solomon is a sultry love song that could make that most worldly of us blush. Isaiah melodically unfolds a story of judgment and deliverance. In this week’s sermon text, Paul and Silas fill their prison cell with notes of praise and hope. And it all crescendos in the book of Revelation with “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be; praise and glory and power for ever and ever” (Rev. 5:13).

Humans sing for lots of reasons, but often because words alone just don’t get the job done. We sing when we need to say something about our deepest longings and our greatest joys. We sing when we need to say something about love. How do just talk about love? I mean that kind of love that’s deep down inside; the kind of love that’s responsible for life’s most profound joy and its most acute grief. Words need music to help us even get close to moments like that. That’s why lovers write ballads and daddies sing lullabies and worshippers . . . that’s why worshipers sing all manner of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19-20).

It makes perfect sense to me that we’d sing praises to God, but what I can’t get over, what gives me pause today, what quiets my heart, is that God sing joyful songs over us. We are God’s deepest longing and his greatest joy. Listen to the prophet Zephaniah’s words, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph. 4:17) God, like a proud papa who has gathered his children around his side, sings songs of love and delight over us.

Perhaps without us even having realized it, our singing has been in response to his. Where John once wrote, we love because he first loved us, we might equally say, we sing because he first sang over us. A preacher of a previous century, Alexander Maclaren, put it this way, “Zion is called to rejoice in God because God rejoices in her. She is to shout for joy and sing because God’s joy too has a voice, and breaks out into singing. For every throb of joy in man’s heart, there is a wave of gladness in God’s. The notes of our praise are at once the echoes and the occasions of His."

Just the thought of God’s song of joy over us makes me want to sing as well. So, what song are you singing today?

Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth – Psalm 96:1.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A prayer for our nation

President Obama, contrary to many rumors, has designated today as The National Day of Prayer (you can read the proclamation here). His requests for prayer are numerous – for wisdom and compassion, justice and mercy. He asks that we pray for those in our Armed Forces and for their families. He asks that we pray for those in other countries who have experienced recent tragedies like Haiti, Chile, and Poland. The proclamation, written last month, doesn’t include new tragedies like the floods in Nashville or the oil spill in the Gulf. Certainly, we should add these to our list. Beyond these things I offer this simple prayer:

Gracious Lord, Maker of the heaven and earth,
the whole world belongs to you.
I thank you for the corner of that world in which I live,
the country in which I make my home.
I thank you for the beauty of her lands,
the diversity of her people, and
the hopes of her ideals.

Forgive us not only when we fall short of our own standards
of justice and freedom for all, but even more so,
Lord, forgive us when we fall short of your standards
of righteousness and mercy.
Forgive us when we criticize our leaders
more often than we genuinely pray for them.
Forgive us when we treat our neighbors
as if they were our enemies.
Forgive us when we chase after wealth and power and our fifteen minutes of fame
as if they were things that could ever truly satisfy.

More than making us mighty, Lord, teach us to be righteous.
More than making us wealthy, Lord, teach us to be generous.
More than making us first in all things, Lord, teach us about the prestige of serving others.
Help us to care for the least of these,
to love those with whom we disagree, and
to seek not simply our own well being, but the well being of others.
Remind us that if we are blessed it is that we might be a blessing,
For we are but one people, among many peoples,
all the works of your hand.

Lord, in your grace, do these things,
for us, the people of this country,
. . . and start with me.


I urge, then first of all , that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made fore everyone – for kings and for all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness – 1 Timothy 2:1-2.