Grace and Confession

For many of us, the prospect of admitting our misdeeds stirs feelings of fear and shame. In this world we expect punishment and rejection for wrongs committed. We do not anticipate forgiveness and reconciliation if we confess sins, but instead retribution and being declared worthless. We are accustomed to conditional love. Our good standing, or so we have learned, is contingent on worthiness, being good enough, and measuring up to some standard.

Seldom have we been truly loved and accepted just as we are, no matter our successes or failures. Such belonging is the gift of grace and gives us a sense of safety and security. We do not have to fear losing everything because of some oversight, poor judgment, or disobedience. Consequently, when a relationship is unconditioned, the admission of failures cannot threaten our belonging.

Because we have experienced much more performance-based acceptance than uncommon grace, we easily import these expectations into how we think of ourselves and God. We fear that God’s displeasure will displace his love if we sin. We recoil from admitting sin because we think God will be angry with us, as if there is no mercy and grace, and are scared that we can no longer be God’s children.

And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Luke 15:21

Jesus put these words into the mouth of the prodigal son because he understood our fear of punishment, rejection, and being counted as worthless. The son believes that the punishment for his actions will be permanent estrangement. However, Jesus is revealing to us that this fear is completely unfounded. The son is neither punished nor disowned, but forgiven and received with joy.

Surely it is not an overstatement to say a central dynamic of the Gospel is grace. Well before the of coming of God into the world as Jesus, Israel was rescued from slavery in Egypt. Moses makes it abundantly clear that this was an act of grace dependent only on the love of God.

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Deuteronomy 7:7-8

The Exodus was Israel’s introduction into grace, and so it becomes a metaphor for our own salvation, from slavery and death, through the waters, and on a journey to the promised land. Grace must not be viewed as some gift only appearing late in the story of God’s working.

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John 1:16-17

John is not saying there was no grace and truth until Jesus. The giving of the law to Moses was a grace, and it certainly contained truth. However, Christ is grace upon grace, and actually the fulfillment and the essential meaning of the law itself. All God’s merciful actions through Israel’s journey were grace upon grace, culminating in the Word made flesh.

When we can hear and marvel at the central dynamic of grace, that the love and saving acts of God are merciful and not in nay manner conditioned on our worthiness, confession can be something we do eagerly. We fear no punishment, being only disappointed with ourselves for having fallen into ungodly attitudes or behavior. Being forgiven is pure joy. There is no question about whether we will be forgiven or punished and rejected. God is just and faithful to forgive us (1 John 1:9). Having the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God reaffirmed no matter what we have gives us hope. What is more encouraging and motivates us to renewed efforts at faithfulness than grace?

A grace-infused understanding of how we stand before God, forever within his forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love, is essential to any regular practice of confession that is life-giving. We should have joy and relief in confession. This is why the church has called this the sacrament of reconciliation. Once we know that reconciliation is always the outcome, confession relieves our burdens and grants us peace.

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Repetition in Prayer

Many of us were taught that reciting or repeating a prayer, anything other than coming up with our own words, was the wrong way to pray. Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount has been put forward as the basis for rejecting all but extemporaneous prayer. 

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Matthew 6:7-8

The basic question is whether Jesus is declaring all repeated prayers to be meaningless, or if repetition can be either meaningful or meaningless, and we are to avoid the latter. Remember, Jesus prayed the exact same prayer three times in the garden (Matthew 26:44), and he also gave his disciples a prayer to say immediately after this criticism of repetition (Matthew 6:9-13). Therefore, Jesus is not rejecting all repetition but only meaningless ones.

The most obvious indication that Jesus is not criticizing all repetitive prayer is because he warns against the meaningless repetition of the Gentiles and says nothing of Jewish prayers. This is very telling, because the Jews had been praying and reciting the psalms for centuries. If Jesus opposed all repeated or recited prayers why not criticize Jewish daily prayer, synagogue prayers, and the temple prayers? The Gentiles were not the only ones who used repetition. Jesus is warning against what makes Gentile repetition meaningless and is concerned that his disciples might do the same. Jesus points out two reasons that the Gentiles use repetition, both of which are based on flawed understandings of how and why we offer prayers.

First, Jesus says that Gentiles are repetitive because they believe they will be heard if they use many words. They do not believe their gods are inclined to hear them. The situation reminds us of Elijah’s mocking of the prophets of Ba’al that perhaps their god was relieving himself, asleep, or had gone on a trip (I Kings 18:27). Their antics were to gain the attention of a disinterested or inattentive deity. Conversely, Jesus is insistent on how his Father is eager and willing to hear and help (Matthew 7:11) because of his great love for us.

On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. John 16:26-27

Second, Jesus implies that Gentiles think they are telling their gods something which their gods to not know. He reminds his disciples that God already knows what they need before they ask. This is also a mistaken understanding of God, and if believed, will lead to useless repetition as we imagine ourselves informing God.

These two underlying conceptions of their gods were why the Gentiles’ repeated their prayers, are not true of God. Jesus in fact wants us to repeat the prayer he gave, as the church has practiced since the beginning, but not for those mistaken reasons. Poor thinking about God may lead us to engage in meaningless repetition. What is in the mind of the one praying, the reason for reciting or repeating prayers, is what will either make them meaningful or meaningless. 

Ironically, the person who believes his prayer will be more readily heard by God or is authentic becausehe is not repeating a prayer composed by someone else, is engaged in meaningless non-repetition! This is also a flawed understanding of what makes prayer meaningful because such a person relies improperly on the non-repetitive nature of his prayer as why God will hear. Neither repetition nor non-repetition is the secret to some prayer formula, but what matters is the act of lifting our hearts up to God.

Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.
Psalm 86:4-7

You may pray these words daily and your repetition will never be meaningless. May we become the words we pray.

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A Cross-like Church

Facebook has finally figured out what I do. For years my profile cryptically stated that I worked at “DF” and that my role was “keeping the chaos at a manageable level”. But in the last six months they have discovered that I work in the “religious industry” and I have begun receiving targeted ads related to my “profession”. These would be humorous if not such a depressing insight into the hollowed out state of Christianity in America.

The obvious pitches promise proven plans to increase end of year giving, techniques to extract more money from the faithful, and ways to make my teaching more engaging. But it gets worse. Another ad touted technology as a way to engage members and guests. It warned against having a volunteer named “Martha” manning an information desk in the foyer, and instead promoted kiosks and software so guests and members could take “next steps” such as sign up for a small group, join a ministry, or request baptism. Request baptism? Why not have the kiosk administer the baptism as well, a diffuser to mist people with a little holy water while they click on a statement of belief.

Additionally, I have been informed that all successful churches know how to use social media for effective marketing. Examples involved using geofencing to target young mothers waiting in school carpool with ads for the services we offer for children and families. After all, those are the people we are going for and you know they are looking at social media while they wait. There was no suggestion that we use geofencing to target those at the unemployment office, the homeless shelter, or at the courthouse. I am sure that those sitting with a court appointed attorney while waiting to appear before the judge are browsing social media as well, but they are not the right “customers” for our religious product. 

Jesus told Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), but some apparently think his statement is a lament. They have been working tirelessly to rectify Jesus’ failure. If only we can reshape the church in our time according to the dictates of the best practices of the corporate world, the attention grabbing techniques of the entertainment industry, and brand building skills of top marketing professionals, then we will be more successful than Jesus ever was. 

I am not being critical of any of these practices per se. The aforementioned are helpful and necessary for businesses and enterprises, but they can be downright destructive to the church. The false assumption is that the people of God, the Body of Christ, ought to be managed, structured, funded, and otherwise conformed to a business model. However good these practices might be for a business venture, they are no more appropriate for for the shaping of a community of love and mutual support which seeks to imitate the way of Jesus than as the guiding principles for the healthy nurturing of one’s own family. Dad, mom, and the children will suffer irreparable harm if branded, marketed, monetized, and managed as a corporation. The church is much more like an extended family than a corporation.

The legitimate business objective of producing a quality product or service cannot be likened to the ministry of the church. A business cannot afford to hire unqualified people while a church actively seeks unqualified people. For a church to act as a business, and too often they do, it would not seek out the marginal and hopeless sinners of the world but look for those who can bring their competence and resources for the continued “success” of the religious enterprise.

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 1 Corinthians 12:22-25

No competent business owner can afford to do what Paul is saying, to keep employees who are not productive, much less actively hire them. However, in the church we should spend inordinate energy on those who may never “be productive.” To do otherwise is to reject Paul’s teaching and neglect the weak and struggling for the progress of the institution. A church for sinners will fail in worldly measures as surely as being nailed to a cross was a glorious insanity.

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. Romans 6:8

For a church pursuing material metrics of success, incrementalism toward glorying in the cross is not possible. Only abject and dismal disappointment and failure will be the medicine of renewal. Overturning the money changers’ tables and declaring the imminent doom of the corrupted version of God’s house is appropriate. We will weep over Jerusalem as it lurches toward destruction. A necessary death, then resurrection.

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Saved Through Sanctification

Two weeks ago I wrote about expanding our understanding of salvation so that we think not only of a single point at which one is saved but also the process of healing and rescue. We can say we have been saved because of the grace of God extended to us through the passion of Christ, and also that we are being saved through the practices of the church in which the Spirit transforms us.

Have you experienced that once something is pointed out to you, suddenly you start to see it everywhere? If you are thinking of buying a particular type of vehicle, you begin to notice them constantly. Sometimes this happens with scripture too.

But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. 2 Thessalonians 2:13

Salvation is through sanctification, Paul says clearly, which is a grace and work of the Spirit. We have often heard that justification is when God declares us righteous, making us righteous even though we are not, and sanctification is the process of becoming holy, learning to actually be righteous. This formula is helpful, but sometimes we can start to associate salvation with justification alone. We think we are saved, and then we grow in holiness, rather than sanctification being, according to scripture, truly part of what it means to be saved.

Let me also anticipate how we might too narrowly read Paul’s words when he mentions “faith in the truth.” With the focus and interpretive lens many of us have, we immediately think of belief in Jesus as the Son of God. This is again making us think of salvation as the single event of “getting” saved by acknowledging Jesus as Savior without the process of being saved.

If we imagine faith as the on-going trust in the truth, that which can set us free (John 8:32) from sin and death (John 8:24), then this faith in the truth is not a singular event of belief but a trusting in the way of sanctification which we are being taught. Since Paul says that the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) we readily see why we can say that salvation is found in the life of the church, because the life taught and practiced in the church is the true way of Jesus through which the Spirit sanctifies us.

In twelve step programs people are reminded to ‘work the program’. The way of living that is being suggested can lead to sobriety and life, but one has to work the program. This is what Paul is talking about. Salvation is in the process of sanctification that the Spirit empowers. We have to trust the truth what we are being told about the process, because many times we do not see the relevance of certain spiritual practices. The rich young man goes away sorrowful because he did not want to give up his possessions, but perhaps also because he saw no link between what Jesus was telling him to do and the life of God he was seeking (Matthew 19:16-22). He had no faith in the true program of sanctification that Jesus was suggesting to him.

Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. John 17:17-19

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Eternal Love

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever.    Psalm 136:1

When we say that the love of God is eternal, that it lasts forever, we are saying more than how it extends for an infinite span of time. The eternal nature of the love of God also means that divine love lacks a culminating end, a finishing point where it will be done. In most everything we hope to arrive at some end, the goal we set out to achieve when we began. Our ordinary daily tasks, or even our attempts to grow in virtue and other such spiritual matters, are hardly conceivable except in terms of a purpose. We are always hoping for something gained, achieved, furthered, experienced, or reciprocated. Our love is inevitably offered for some desired goal rather than unending.

The love of God, which is lavished upon us and we want to learn to share with others, is a love without our type of purpose or goal. The love of God is not the means to some end, an objective that God has in mind. Instead, his love is endless selflessness. In this respect, God’s love is senseless, that is, it lacks reasonable logic for its existence. Though it is going nowhere, it is taking us and all of history somewhere. God’s love just is. It is love for the sake of love itself; God simply being God with no ulterior reason or motive.

There is no end to God’s love because God is not loving for a reason other than love itself, or to receive something in return from all he loves. Love is the essence of God’s self and what God does as God. Certainly, the love of God produces many results, such as healing us from our brokenness, but that is a result of love’s work and not the final purpose or end of love. Once we experience healing, the love of God continues for it has not accomplished a goal that now makes its existence irrelevant. Love without purpose, goal, sense, or tactical end is part of what we mean by the eternal love of God. Love is not God’s strategy, but God’s life. 

Such a purposeless love is completely foreign to us and what we mean when we speak of God’s love being unconditional. We may talk constantly about God’s love, and should, but we struggle to grow into or even comprehend it. The eternal love of God, endless in simple selflessness, is profoundly nonsensical. When we keep loving in the face of discomfort, rejection, lack of appreciation, the apathy of others, personal disappointment, or outright hostility, we have an opportunity to take our love beyond the limits of purpose. But this is precisely the point at which we are tempted to give up on love because our love is accomplishing nothing. If we do give up, we were not loving with the love of God but as a strategy for some other objective. We were not loving for love’s sake, or for the sake of God.

Only our experience of hard, rewardless love reveals the love of God as grace. When we start to love with no goal in mind we begin to realize what the gospel proclaims, that God loves us endlessly, and that God’s love for us is not for some gain or advantage on God’s part. Hopefully, we become enthralled with a purposeless love, thoroughly unbelievable, but one which draws us in.

Paul can say confidently that “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). If divine love is trying to get me to love in return, it might indeed fail. I may not reciprocate love. But if the love of God is poured out for it’s own sake, then it cannot fail no matter what I do or do not do. Love is and will be who God is. This endless radiant selflessness is paradoxically accomplishing everything with no final goal other than being love. 

When all things in heaven and earth are united in Christ (Ephesians 1:10) no end has come. The consummation of love’s unwounding of creation does not mean love has completed some purpose and is now finished. Instead, in that union of all creation the divine love will be even more pronounced, not finished. The nature of the purposeless, and therefore endless, love of God is that it cannot cease but only increase as more and more is brought into conformity with itself. This is the nature of divine love . . . and truly the love we need.

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Being Saved

When it comes to salvation, most of us immediately think about the promise of eternity with God which is ours by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. While definitely true, this definition of salvation exclusively points to what happens in the life to come. Such a view is too limited and narrow for how salvation is discussed in scripture. The biblical concept of salvation also describes a present reality which involves the on-going work of God.

Note the emphasis in these two instances where Paul speaks about being saved as a process happening now, as taken from the English Standard Version which translates this well.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:1-2

If we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus as the Son of God, and therefore are forgiven, justified, and reconciled to God, in what sense is this a continuing process? The answer lies in the Greek word for “salvation”, means to be “rescued from certain death” or “healed of serious illness”. Indeed, one part of this rescue is from the death of separation from God which is immediately resolved by grace through faith, but the healing of the problem of sinfulness is not nearly as sudden. Justification is part of salvation, restoring our relationship with God, but sanctification, becoming holy, is also part of salvation. In a day to day sense, we are only as saved as we are free from the slavery to sin. We may no longer be estranged from God, but we are not fully healed of the problem yet. We have been saved and we are being saved.

If the emphasis on salvation as a future abiding with God is taken too far, it may end up becoming an idolatry of eternity which neglects the spiritual significance of our present reality. Fortunately, the biblical meaning of salvation does not make it only about a future abode, but also a present experience of being changed, which is what Paul was describing.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13

I like to say that eternity, what is coming next, will take care of itself if we tend to salvation here and now. Transformation of a person’s day to day life in this world, which can only happen in Christ by grace, sets one on an eternal course. Thinking about salvation in the present is not simply knowing now that I am guaranteed of heaven later, but experiencing daily healing and rescue from disordered thinking, behavior, desires, and will.

All the needed changes to how I think, the course and direction of inner desires, my patterns of behavior, and emotional scars, are not healed simply by the gift of reconciliation through the cross. The older Christian traditions speak about salvation being only in the church. We ought to hear them saying that our transformation from sinful brokenness to becoming a healed follower of Jesus occurs through the community, practices, sacraments, and training within the life of the church. Rather than hearing them as if they are denying the justification which is in Christ, or suggesting something other than that justification, these older churches are speaking of the day to day reality of being saved. This does happen in and through the church as the body of Christ. Those who are being saved are finding that healing in the way of Christ as taught and practiced within Christ.

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God’s Will and Jesus’ Death

We know Jesus’ statement of submission to his Father’s will, “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Because of this verse and many similar ones we are correct to say that it was the Father’s will that Jesus die. But I believe it is also very easy to misunderstand what we mean about the will of God in this matter. We are speaking about God’s will regarding a response and not the situation itself. Let me illustrate the distinction using an example from the teaching of Jesus.

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Luke 6:28-29

Does Jesus want his disciples to be cursed? Does he want us to be slapped on the cheek, or someone to take our coat? Surely not! The will of Jesus is not that his followers are in a situation where they are mistreated or that would make Jesus a sadistic master indeed. The will of Jesus is that we turn the other cheek in response, but it is not his will that we are slapped on the cheek in the first place. Jesus is not willing the situation but telling us what he wills for us to do in response to such situations.

In the same way, when we say that it was God’s will that Jesus die, or affirm that he was sent for this very purpose, we are not saying that God desired for people to torture and kill Jesus. God’s will was that when faced with a cruel and unjust death, Jesus would suffer rather than fight back, which is exactly what the Father would do. When faced with wickedness he would forgive. When cursed he would bless. So we correctly say that it was the Father’s will that Jesus die on the cross. The will of God for Jesus, and for Christians always, is that we respond to evil and mistreatment with grace and the willingness to suffer rather than inflict suffering. We are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

However, one might think if it was God’s will that Jesus die did not God have to plan and orchestrate that death to “make sure” it would happen? Could God really count on us to kill Jesus if he wasn’t himself causing it? If you think that apart from God’s prompting we might not have killed Jesus you have a naive hope in human goodness. Even Plato, nearly 400 years before Jesus, knew enough to make the following statement about the fate of a truly righteous man.

The just man, then, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified, and learn at last that in the world as it is we should want not to be, but to seem, just. – Plato’s Republic

The death of Jesus is only pleasing to God as the righteous response to evil. The killing itself was an evil act against a righteous man. We should not imagine that God in any fashion wills the death of anyone, much less his Son. Death is what God is defeating on the cross, not wanting to occur.

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). 

Since God is not pleased with the death of a wicked person, to say God willed the death of Jesus is not to speak of death itself, but the willingness to die selflessly. When we say the cross was the will of God we must remember that we are speaking of it as the response to evil that God desires, and we are not saying that God ever actually desires any death that evil causes, spiritual or physical. The torture and murder of Jesus shows the extent of abuse God is willing to endure at human hands so that he might defeat death and sin, while loving and saving us. 

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