Category Archives: Works
I just had a fantastic revelation! Like, a mind-blowing revelation and I gotta share it! And it is this: context matters when you’re reading scripture!!!
Haha. Okay. Done being snarky. But seriously…read this:
“For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (although it is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Do you see? Do you get it? We Christians have always been fond of quoting Romans 3:23 in isolation. But when you read it in context, this verse is not meant to be a condemnation of humanity bur rather a way of leveling the playing field between the Jews and the Gentiles. Paul is saying to his fellow Jews, “Hey, guess what you guys? The Law doesn’t make you righteous. You are no more righteous than the Gentiles even though you have adhered to the Law so dutifully.
This may seem blatantly obvious to you. But after a lifetime of being told that that verse is a reminder that all of humanity hopelessly depraved…after a lifetime of hearing that verse in an accusatory light, it is more liberating than I can express to understand that this verse was written as a message of solidarity, a message to say that the law-abiders and the law-breakers are all on level a level playing field under the New Covenant.
Isn’t that just so freaking cool?!?!
P.S. I hope you appreciate the informal tone of this blog post. I only wrote it this way because I’m just ecstatic to be reading this verse in a totally new light. And when I’m ecstatic, my serious and profound way of writing out my thoughts kinda goes out the window!
Last summer, I read David Platt’s book Radical for the first time. If you aren’t familiar with the book, the gist of it is that David is challenging us to rethink how we live our lives and use and value our money, based on the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. He refers to verses like Matthew 19:21 and Luke 18:18-22 to basically say that we’ve got to let go of our materialism and start trying to live like Jesus did. I didn’t like the book very much, and I couldn’t really put a finger on why except to say that reading it filled me with guilt instead of conviction, paralyzing shame instead of a desire to change the world by changing the way I live in it. And I wasn’t sure whether my own heart was to blame for that, or if the ideas in the book were.
Right now, I’m reading a different book: The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. On the surface, it’s message seems to be the same. Jesus hung out with poor people all the time, and we should care about social justice and ending poverty. We need to rethink how we value, spend, and save our money. As I read it, I even found parts that echoed David Platt’s sentiments almost identically. Consider these excerpts, pulled from each book:
“We’ve been very careful at the Simple Way never to claim that we have the corner on the market for “radical Christianity.” Nor have we even tried to spread a brand or model. And the incredible thing is that the stories of ordinary radicals are all over the place, stories of everyday people doing small things with great love, with their lives, gifts, and careers. I heard about a group of massage therapists who spend their days washing and massaging the tired feet of homeless folks. Some manicurists told me they go to old folks homes and ask which old ladies have no visitors or family, and then they sit with them, laugh, tell stories, and do their nails…There are lawyers who bail us out of jail, advocate for human rights, and go with us before zoning boards that have no categories for understanding how we live. The examples are as numerous as the number of vocations. But the calling is the same: to love God and our neighbors with our whole lives, careers, and gifts.” ~ The Irresistible Revolution (source)
“When I sit down for lunch with Steve, a businessman in our faith family, it’s obvious we have different callings in our lives. He’s an accountant; I’m a pastor. He is gifted with numbers; I can’t stand numbers. But we both understand that God has called us and gifted us for a global purpose. So Steve is constantly asking, “How can I lead my life, my family, and my accounting firm for God’s glory in Birmingham and around the world?” He is leading co-workers to Christ; he is mobilizing accountants to serve the poor; and his life is personally impacting individuals and churches in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe with the gospel.
Steve and others like him have decided that they are not going to take the command of Christ to make disciples of all nations and label it a calling for a few. They are not going to sit on the sidelines while a supposed special class of Christians accomplishes the global purpose of God. They are convinced that God has created them to make His glory known in all nations, and they are committing their lives to accomplishing that purpose.” Radical (source)
So what is the difference between the two? I was trying to figure this out, because at first I thought it was because Shane’s life experiences give so much more weight to his words. In college he and a group of friends stood by a homeless community as the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia tried to evict them from an abandoned cathedral. He spent a summer in India with Mother Theresa, caring for and learning about love from lepers. He had stories, and I believed him when he explained that living among and serving the poor opened his eyes to the heart of Jesus in a way nothing ever had before.
As I continued to mull over these two men’s books and the difference in my reaction to them, I realized that it went even deeper than the difference in life experience between the two men. Because really, God can use you wherever. We aren’t all called to the slums of India. Some of us might become David Platts who pastor mega-churches and talk about living a radical life for Christ even if we never leave the U.S.
What stood apart in Shane’s book, what reached into the core of me and infused me with a desire to love as Jesus commands us to love, is that Shane pushed not just for charity, not just for helping the needy. He writes,
“When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity. One of my friends has a shirt marked with the words of late Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist.” Charity wins awards and applause but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for living out of love that disrupts the social order that calls forth a new world. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.”
“We are not a voice for the voiceless. The truth is that there is a lot of noise out there downing out quiet voices, and many people have stopped listening to the cries of their neighbors. Lots of folks have put their hands over their ears and drown out the suffering…it is a beautiful thing when folks in poverty are no longer just a missions project but become genuine friends and family with whom we laugh, cry, dream, and struggle.”
Wow. Powerful. And that’s where David Platt fell short for me. I felt like his book emphasized charity, but didn’t have much to say about solidarity in the way that Shane describes it here. Blurring the lines between rich and poor looks a whole lot more like the Gospel of Jesus than just wiser money management, alms-giving, or even living out a vocation that plays a part in helping the least of these (all of which both David Platt and Shane Claiborne support, as evidenced from the excerpts I shared from their books earlier in this post). And this is why I felt convicted by Shane’s book—because he reached into the heart of the matter, the heart of why poverty exists at all. It exists because we, the rich, the privileged, find it so easy to keep the poor at arm’s length. But when we get down into the slums with them, we’ll realize…they are also made in the image of Christ. They are also worthy and treasured by God. They deserve dignity too.
In closing, I wanted to share this blog post with you. It’s beautiful. And it just rocks my world when the story of this agnostic blogger feels so very much closer to the heart of what Jesus desires of us than what my own life has been. It’s high time I change that.
This afternoon I reread an article on the Redemption Pictures blog, and it got me thinking about the relationship this writer draws between sin and doubt. It’s so easy to accuse those of us who struggle with doubt for doing so because we’ve embraced sin in our lives (in this example, sexual sin). But it’s just a lot more complex than that. I relate so well to Micah’s story. because I’ve pursued purity and righteousness all my life. Yet I’ve always felt the need to earn God’s favor.
“As a teenager, I literally thought I could chart my “spiritual health” on a line graph, with my only data point being how many times per day I snuck an eager glance at the lingerie section of a J.C. Penney catalog. I believed that the sum total of my relationship with God could be measured by my ability to control my sexual urges. Of course, this was a ludicrously flawed approach to spirituality.
If young people today are hesitant to turn to God, it’s not because “His opinions on sex are restrictive”. It’s because they think that following God is primarily about morality, about “not having sex”. It’s because they see Christianity as a list of beliefs to accept and sins to avoid. It’s because, despite all the right teaching and doctrine, it’s so often just about “trying harder”.”
Read the rest of the article here. It’s a wonderful read.
So how should we approach this? How do we live lives that are more Christlike without falling into this soul-sucking trap of always feeling like we have to try harder to avoid sin and win God’s favor?
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that, but I think it starts with understanding that your identity is not based on your own merits and your own ability to avoid sin. Because, let’s face it, who among us is really capable of living a stellar moral life on our own? Instead, if we start with the foundation of God’s boundless grace, we are not shamed into trying harder to avoid sin. Instead we are driven by love to imitate Christ—not because we are trying to earn His favor, but because our hearts desire to demonstrate our love for Him.
I am reminded of that beautiful passage about the power of love in I Corinthians. The first few verses, especially, relate so powerfully to the futility of trying to earn the favor of God by good works. I mean, my goodness, if martyrdom itself is meaningless without a foundation of love, what does that say about yours or my strivings for righteousness?
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I Corinthians 13:1-3
This past week, I got into a bit of an argument online about good deeds and faith and Christian love and all that jazz. The person I was debating essentially quoted Matthew 5:48 (“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) to make the point that we must strive for holiness in our lives. While I think this is absolutely true, I also expressed my thoughts that this idea really needs to be supplemented by Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9, which says, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Basically, living a life of righteousness–pursuing “perfection”, so to speak—is kind of a pointless endeavor in light of the truth of what it means to be a Christian. I mean, I’ve done that my whole life. I’ve gone to church, I’ve tried my hardest to speak graciously and develop positive friendships, I’ve done my best to pursue the will of God in my romantic relationships, I’ve taken the Bible seriously and sought to live out its precepts. But all this pursuit of holiness, all this striving to live rightly has never, for a moment, made me feel closer to God. And I don’t think it’s because I haven’t tried hard enough. I think it’s precisely because I have tried.
Being in a relationship with the Father isn’t about trying to do more or be more. It isn’t about pushing full steam ahead in the works department and crowding out the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit. Being in relationship with the Father is about surrender. It’s about having the humility to acknowledge, as Paul does, how weak I am, and how full of sinful desires I am. I know that’s the truth, whether people on the web agree with me or not.
One thing I thought of, though, as I shared and discussed the 2 Corinthians passage is how much I really believe I’m weak and depraved and all of that. Because, as I said, I’ve striven for holiness my whole life. I generally wish well for others and try to be the best person I can be. How depraved am I, really?
What I’ve come to realize is that my sin nature isn’t as blatant and easy to detect as I’ve always imagined it ought to be. I think my sinfulness rears its head most often in the subtle but very pervasive mindset that the world revolves around me. When I stop and think about how many times a day I think a selfish thought, or fret over why someone else doesn’t see things the way I see them, the realization is just staggering. That tendency to think inwardly, to think about how the words and actions of those around me can best benefit me, is the core of the human nature of fallenness. It’s easy to justify, easy to explain away and write off, but oh dear goodness is it pervasive in my life!
Anyway, the point of all this self-reflection is to say that I am done trying to battle my sin nature on my own. I’m done trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t play a large role in preventing me from embracing the love of the Father. If all this soul-searching has convinced me of anything, it’s that I can’t try to be holy, I can’t try to be righteous, I can’t try to drive away my sinful predisposition, all on my own. Instead, I’m going to focus on surrender, on humbly giving up my will to the grace of God, that his power may be made perfect in my weakness, just as Paul says.
So, I’m trying to figure out this whole idea of sinfulness and sanctification, because there seems to be a bit of a paradox here. As a human being, I was born inherently sinful. I am predisposed to sinfulness, and “every inclination of [my] heart is only evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). I get that—I get that the sinfulness of human nature is the whole point of the Gospel, that Jesus as the perfect Son of God came down to pay a price we could never pay because we’re just too screwed up to be righteous on our own.
What I don’t understand is whether or not this continues to be true of me after I accept Jesus. Because I have done that, which means I am in the process, every day, of being transformed into a human being who is not depraved, but rather more and more like Christ. And this is done, of course, through the Holy Spirit. You know, that whole idea of dying to the flesh and being renewed and sanctified.
But here is what I don’t understand. Paul, who encountered God personally, who was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he became one of the principal leaders of the early church and penned much of the New Testament (in other words, he was super sanctified!) still calls himself an absolute wretch, and states in a tone that seems to be quite exasperated:
“For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.” (Romans 7:18-20)
“Nothing good lives in me”?! What?! Isn’t that the whole point of the Holy Spirit—that it lives in you and transforms you from the inside out? That you become a person who sins less and loves more, who daily lets go of the things of this world and turns your gaze heavenward? Isn’t that what sanctification does? So how on earth does sanctification mesh with the above verses? I really don’t see how it does. As you draw nearer to God, you become more holy. And as you do that, the good is what you truly do in your life, and not just what you want to do. And the evil is what you shun, because the more deeply you love the Father, the greater your desire to please Him. Your desires line up more closely every day with the will of God. And that isn’t to say that temptations to sin never go away, or that you don’t ever sin, but doesn’t sanctification mean that sin plays a continually smaller role in your life, and righteousness abounds?
So I’m not sure which narrative I’m supposed to apply to my life here. The narrative that says I am broken and depraved and utterly helpless, unable to please God by what I do on my own, or the narrative that bows in deference and obedience to God when confronted with opportunities for righteousness. I know the answer is “both”, and I’m probably missing something about how the two ideas intertwine in my life, but I don’t really understand what I am missing. Am I a perpetually dirty, sinful person who ought to strive for a holiness I can never attain? Or does every right thing that I say and do purify me, make me just a little bit more clean in the eyes of the Father? Am I called, as Jesus commands in Matthew 5:48, to be perfect? (Whatever that word means!). These are two polar-opposite ideas, and I’m no longer sure which one describes according to the Gospel.
I’ve been told I’m depraved. Broken. Less than whole. Filled with a sinful nature. I’ve been told I’ll never be good enough, my good acts will never wash away the stain of sin that separated me from God. On my own, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at attaining holiness. I’ve got original sin seeping through every pore of my spirituality, and I’m never going to be cured of it.
That is all true.
That’s not who I am, that’s not the identity that I claim, and it’s not the identity that is true of me. My identity is a beloved child of God. My identity is someone who has worth and value in the eyes of the Lord, and my identity is someone who is accepted, already accepted, for exactly who I am.
These two ideas describe a strange and confusing paradox to live out. On the one hand, I must remind myself that as a human being, I’m very much so predisposed to sin. Even as a believer in Christ, righteousness done on my own strength is still “filthy rags”. That truth is still the reality.
But it is also true that God sanctifies me. The Holy Spirit has a place in me, and righteous acts done in obedience to God are good, no matter how small or large they are or how deeply they impact the world around me. And these acts are a result of surrender. And I think, more deeply than that, they are a result of me claiming my identity as God’s child.
So I don’t think either view of myself ought to be discarded. I must remember that my nature is broken and predisposed to sinfulness, because that keeps me humble, keeps me from trying to live right on my own. And remembering my identity is not brokenness—my identity is wrapped up in God’s love for me—gives me the will to surrender to him, and be his vessel, and let him work through me to accomplish his will.
So I’m going to live in the tension of these two opposite extremes, and embrace them both, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. Because both are true, and I think both are necessary to growth in Christ.
God is doing things in me. I’m sure of it. My faith has transformed so drastically over this past year that I truly don’t even recognize the person that I was in Christ a year ago. My relationship with God has become something new, something transformed, something so much more authentic and vibrant than it used to be. Some days I just want to burst with gladness that He is teaching me so much, and that my heart has been opened to learning from Him.
And along with this, God has convicted the living daylights out of me. He’s impressed something upon me again, and again, and again, through the Bible, and through people at my church, and through various books about Christianity that I’ve been reading lately. I’ve come to realize that the strength and maturity of my Christian walk is not measured by how diligently I study his Word, or how often I meditate on His will, or how often I attend church, or how many sentences I string together about Him on this blog. The maturity of my Christian walk is measured by how well I love those around me who are most desperately in need of His love. That’s the whole purpose of this Christianity thing. To love. To be so enveloped with the confidence of God’s love for me and my love for God that it melts into every aspect of my life.
We Christians—myself included—are terribly good at reading Scripture selectively. We jump all over 2 Timothy 3:16, quote it and memorize it and use it to justify our idea of Biblical authority. Yet we aren’t too great at remembering 2 Timothy 3:17, which reminds us of the entire purpose of why we have faith that the Bible is inspired by God to begin with. Why? So that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work!!! That’s the point of it all! The entire purpose of reading the Bible and praying and going to church and…all of it! The purpose is so we can do great acts of righteousness in God’s name, and be people in whom Christ’s light shines so strongly that everyone around us sees little Christs, Christs-in-progress. In his marvelous book, The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight summarizes this idea wonderfully:
Any reading and any interpretation [of the Bible] that does not lead to good works, both as a practical application and as the behavioral result, aborts what the Bible is designed to produce.
Wow. How’s that for a good dose of conviction.
So I’ve committed myself to letting my words and my actions be as deep a reflection of my devotion to God as my Scripture reading, prayer time, meditation, and church attendance. I’m going to serve, and try to be a vessel of love for those around me. I’m going to try to be more patient with those who anger me, and more compassionate toward those who are down-and-out, and more gracious toward those who I don’t understand. I’m going to take 2 Timothy 3:17 seriously, and instead of just reading the Word, I’m going to do my very best to surrender to the strength of God and, through Him, LIVE the Word.