Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The 'Big Picture' series - 6: Grace

Practicality: “Grace” means favour, not forgiveness, and not kindness. We have God's favour when we are faithful to Him. “Grace” does not mean we can live wilfully sinful lives and expect God to be pleased with us, nor does it mean we can expect God to be pleased with us if we do not selflessly serve Him by loving others. Rather, God favours people whose quality of heart is like Christ’s – that of selfless service to God and love for others.

Grace is often said to be central to the Gospel. Many years of hearing Christians speak about grace has given me some insight into how most Christians think of it. Here, I will explain my understanding of the typical view, but I will try and peel back the layers of Christian jargon and catch-phrases to hopefully show the real nature and implications of “grace” as many Christians think of it.

If one thing is clear, it is that many people don’t have a clear idea of what Biblical “grace” actually is. Many see it as the forgiveness of sins that God ‘graciously’ gives us. Another idea is that it is God’s gracious bestowal of blessings on us, to make our lives more enjoyable. Still others would see God’s grace in the fact that He sent Jesus to “die for our sins”. Occasionally I hear that when we “open our hearts” to God He “works in us” to make us more like Christ “by His grace” – making “grace” a process or magical force synonymous with the idea that the Holy Spirit moulds and shapes those who accept Jesus into His likeness. Occasionally, we hear whispers that grace may be something we are to give others.

Common to all of these are a few interesting themes. Firstly, this “grace” is completely undeserved and unmerited, in that there is nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it. This idea is very close to suggesting it is also unconditional, like it is a ‘free gift’ that we simply have to ‘receive’. Second, this idea of “grace” is perhaps described quite accurately by words like “kindness” and “acceptance” (dare I say even, “tolerance”). Finally, it is portrayed as something bestowed the ‘receiver’ not because of anything the ‘receiver’ has done, but rather the emphasis is that it is what the ‘giver’ of the grace does. It is almost like this “grace” can be passed around like a shoebox full of money – all you have to do is take it.

Are these ideas of grace are what the New Testament writers had in mind? Such ideas don’t seem to line up with the conclusions of my own study into this word, and think these ideas about grace not only dull the true and quite powerful meaning of grace in the Bible, but can also lead to conclusions that are simply unbiblical.

After reading through hundreds of verses where “charis” occurs in the greek NT and LXX, I am convinced that it means ‘favour’, and there are very few verses where this idea does not make perfect sense. We need to slightly expand the idea of favour to capture “charis”, though, because it is also used in the sense of “thanks”. In the Greek, though, both “favour” and “thanks” were described by this Greek word, and we get our two words from slightly different applications of the same idea. Now, “charis” is used in quite a distinctly different way to “aleos”, which means mercy or kindness. “Aleos” has the meaning most people associate with “charis”, but they are used in very different contexts and I am convinced they have quite different meanings. I could not find a use of “aleos” in the LXX which did not refer to a kind action or merciful deed. In contrast, “charis” is generally used without reference to any action, which could be expected if it simply means ‘favour’.

So how does such an idea fit with the gospel? To me, it means the gospel is not one of ‘cheap grace’, but describes how to have God’s favour. This is the good news – that tells us how we can have God’s favour. Now let me make it clear that God is merciful and kind, and cares for those who do not have his favour, as numerous verses describe. Christ himself told us to ‘love our enemies’, and then points to God as an exemplar of this, by caring for even wicked and sinful people who are against Him. But this does not mean God is please with them or that they have His favour. So this is quite a scary thought, that God not only is displeased with people who act against Him and His ways, but that they have quite literally “fallen from grace”. The more this idea has been mulling in my head, the more I notice verses where God states quite clearly that the wicked do not have his favour. Such verses strike quite a discord with the catch-cry of modern evangelism to this largely wicked and selfish generation that “God loves you”.

How do we gain God’s favour then? I believe the Bible clearly states it is by being faithful to Him and His commands – the type of “faith” I talked about in the first post in this series. Being faithful requires not merely warm fuzzy thinking, but actions that reflect our devotion to Him. Let me take the parable of the three servants who were given 5, 2, and 1 talents to explain (see Mat 25:14-46). The master gave his servants 5, 2, and 1 ‘talents’ respectively, which apparently was some amount of money. The ones with 5 and 2 both used them to make more money, thus being faithful to their master. The one with only 1 talent hid it and did not even make interest in the bank on it, thus being unfaithful to his master. The master was equally pleased with both the first and the second servant, but rebuked the unfaithful servant. The point is that the master’s favour was given not on how much money they had made, but rather whether they were fully devoted to serving the master in what they were doing – with all that they have been given.

Likewise, God’s favour is not given to us because of how much good we do or how little we sin, but rather whether we are serving Him completely and selflessly – not giving him merely a fraction of our devotion. Indeed, we serve him by not sinning and instead doing good, but I think it is the quality of our hearts and not the quantity of our actions that God favours. Of course, though, quality service to God will result in some quantity of good action. But we must not merely look at someone who is doing “more good” than another and think they are “more favoured”, for what matters is that they are selfless and living their lives to love God and others. The amount of good that people do is dependent not only on their heart, but also their spiritual maturity. I think God looks at a child who loves selflessly but can do little for others with more favour than an adult who could do much but hardly raises a finger to care for others.

So perhaps the most unbiblical misunderstanding is that in His “grace”, God overlooks the quality of our hearts and gives favour to people who mostly serve themselves rather than Him. This “grace” is understood as God’s toleration of our willful sin. Such an idea mistakes “charis” for “aleos”, and leads to the unbiblical conclusion that God has “favour” on the wicked and sinful. God giving favour to those who have a sinful heart and serve themselves instead of Him is the reverse of what Jesus described in the above parable. But do not misunderstand me – God is merciful and forgiving, look at David for example. We do make mistakes. But these are all our sins should be – mistakes. We cannot willingly and continually do something we know God is against and call it a ‘mistake’ – such action is willful disobedience. God looks upon our mistakes with mercy and compassion if we are faithful to Him – for faithful people have his favour - but the idea of God giving favour to people who are unfaithful to Him seems to go against Biblical teaching.

Sadly, the result of decades of Christians believing a doctrine of “cheap grace”, instead of a pure, righteous, Holy, faithful and Christ-like church it has become one full of tolerance and compromise. Gone are the days of discipline, now we are in “grace”. Even though the Bible clearly states Christians should have nothing to do with sin, we water these commands down with “grace”. The emphasis is no longer on the quality of our hearts, but on the quantity of people in our churches.

Not only does cheap grace sweep under the carpet God’s commands to not sin, but people also use it to hide His commands about what we should be doing. This sort of “grace” is given to those who do nothing. “We needn’t worry if we aren’t caring for others,” people think, “because we’ve got God’s grace so He loves us anyway – isn’t that amazing?” It would amaze me, because that’s not the God I know! The God I know cares for people and tells us to do the same, and in the Bible when people are selfish and uncaring God certainly doesn’t like it. The servant who did nothing with the one talent given him was harshly rebuked in Jesus’ parable, not given “grace”. Later in the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus makes it clear that if we do not do the good God has commanded of us, we will be rebuked just like that servant. Not only has “cheap grace” made a church of compromise, but it has also made one full of apathy towards doing the good that God calls it to do.

Rather than quoting and explaining all the many verses I pondered over to reach my conclusions, I will end with just one short quote of Romans 5:1-2, which I have translated from the Greek into meaningful English as best I can. I will be happy to share my thoughts on other verses you may comment on.

“Therefore, we are righteous because of our faithfulness; and we have peace with God because of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of Christ we also have had access by faithfulness into this favour in which we stand, and we rejoice because of the hope of being praised by God.”

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The 'Big Picture' Series - 5: Salvation

Practicality: Not only must we leave the kingdom of sin, but we must live as Christ – as citizens of God’s Kingdom. We cannot think it is enough to try to do only one of these, for salvation is the entire process of going from the kingdom of sin into the Kingdom of God. God gives “eternal life” to those in His Kingdom, but entering His Kingdom comes at a high price. It costs us everything – for must give up our selfish desires and instead love God and others.

The “free gift of salvation”

Is salvation a free gift? By “free gift”, I mean something that we ‘receive’ with virtually no requirements on our part – after all, that’s the nature of something that is freely given. This idea is arguably central to current popular Christianity, yet I am convinced that such ideas distort the Biblical teaching of salvation.

Before I define salvation more clearly, let me describe the current popular ideas. A brief keyword search on the internet for “salvation” and “free gift” gives hundreds of links to the “free gift of salvation”. I even found several sites that condemned the idea that we needed to actually repent and turn away from sin – for salvation is “freely given”, they say. Forgiveness of the guilt of sin by “accepting the gift of Christ”, and resultant eternal life – this is the message of the popular gospel. But it is not the gospel preached by Jesus, nor by the apostles, nor by the early church – it is a gospel of “cheap grace”. The heretical gospel of “cheap grace” comes from consumerism, a narrow focus on only a few verses, and a reinterpretation of the Bible according to a selfish, consumer mindset.

Let me give you an example I have copy-and-pasted from a website I found, I have not added any emphasis (but I have changed the font-size to normal):



How hard is it to accept this FREE GIFT, Christ as your Savior?

You may think, as so many do, that you have to clean yourself up to present yourself to God but...YOU DON'T... Just look at this:

Eph 2:8-9

Nor do you have to understand it all!
od sent His son Jesus with a wonderful gift (gift means free) for you no matter who you are, what you have done or how bad you have been. We are all sinners but He can offer you the gift of salvation paid in full for you by His death and resurrection. He will give you His perfect pardon, Eternal Life accompanied by the Comforter to stay with you, lead you, and gently encourage you forever. And it's ALL
FREE!! with no strings!
Now Isn't That

I listened to a Jewish Christian gentleman make the most profound analogy of the offer of Salvation I have ever heard. He compared Christ to a door-to-door salesman, of all things, saying that He knocks at the door of our hearts and asks permission to come in and show His awesome product, Salvation= Eternal Life, because, He can not show the product unless you invite Him in. You see, neither Jesus Christ or the door-to-door salesman can let you see how their product works if you don't allow them to demonstrate it to you. Now the salesman may be pushy but Christ is NOT!

To accept this free gift, all you have to do is ask Jesus into your life. Just pray something like this: Lord God I realize that I am a sinner. And though I may not understand it all, just the best that I know how, I trust that your son Jesus Christ paid for my sins at the cross, overcame death by rising again and is alive with you. I accept your free gift of Salvation. I invite You to come into my life and show me the way to go from here. In Jesus name I pray. Amen

Simple!...Now watch Him give your life a whole new meaning.

My heart both weeps and flares with anger that such heresy is so rampant, and it is heresy, just cleverly disguised in Biblical language.
Its heresy should be clear by comparison with Scripture, as I will endeavor to show. What is the above message really saying? Jesus “does it all”, and we do nothing. It suggests salvation is nothing more than taking a free ticket to eternal life. Salvation is seen as a product that we can get. Salvation is done for us, we simply grab a piece of the cake. What is the focus of this sort of gospel? The individual – this gospel is all about “me” and getting what I want. Is it hard? No. What does it cost us? Nothing.

A comparison with Scripture

What did Jesus say about being a Christian?

Mat 16:24,25

Then Jesus said to His disciples, If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life shall lose it, and whoever desires to lose his life for My sake shall find it.

Mat 7:13, 14

Go in through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many there are who go in through it. Because narrow is the gate and constricted is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Luk 14:26-35

If anyone comes to Me and does not [comparatively] hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me, he cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he may have enough to finish it; lest perhaps, after he has laid the foundation and is not able to finish, all those seeing begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not first sit down and consult whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So then, everyone of you who does not forsake all his possessions, he cannot be My disciple.

Salt is good, but if the salt has become tasteless, with what shall it be seasoned? It is not fit for the land, nor for manure, but people throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

What is portrayed by popular salvation messages? “It’s easy - just choose the broad way.” “Salvation costs you nothing - you don’t have to deny your selfish desires, repent and forsake sin – you just accept it as another product into your life by saying this simple prayer…” So many Christians are like the incomplete towers of Luke 14 because they are unwilling to pay the full cost of the gospel – but what good is an unfinished tower when it is hardly off the ground? Like kings unwilling to yield the kingdom of their hearts and lives to the true and far greater king, God, we are unwilling to let go of what we have and what we want and serve and obey only God. In this way, far too much of the modern Christianity has indeed lost is saltiness, for it is no longer pure and righteous but contaminated with selfishness and lack of selfless love for God and others. So what good is Christianity like this? “It is not fit for the land, nor for manure, but people throw it out.” How heavily those words should hit popular Christianity today! Such heretical ideas of a selfish Christianity are just the same as the ideas advocated by the world, and instead of being a guiding light to the world Christianity becomes an empty tomb. Is it any wonder that so many people do, indeed, “throw it out”?

My understanding of Salvation – the process of going from the kingdom of sin to the Kingdom of God

So what is a biblical understanding of salvation? I described the two kingdoms, of sin and of God, previously in this post series. I also described how repentance was leaving the kingdom of sin. But it is not merely enough to not sin! So many people today view Christianity as about notnothing! doing this or that, so instead of going the good things God instructs, they do Certainly, they may no longer be committed to sin, but they are not committed to God either – they’re committed to nothing. A healthy Christian mindset is not to make sure you don’t cross lines into ‘sinfulness’, but to make sure you do break the boundaries of selfishness to reach out and care for people. When we are being selfless, our own sin will not be an issue.

Clearly, then, to be part of the kingdom of God, we must be faithful to obey Him and actually live as his people. It is when a person becomes faithful to God, in heart and lived in deed, that we can say they are part of the Kingdom of God. They are free from sin. They are “saved”, and the whole process of going from the kingdom of sin to the kingdom of God can be called salvation – literally, “the process of being saved”.

Let me give some examples from the Bible. Think of the prodigal son. He was living a horrible life of sin in a far away land, but he “came to himself” and returned to his father’s house to live with him and according to his will. What a shallow view of ‘salvation’ to restrict it to merely the father’s forgiveness of his son’s sin, for salvation is so much more! The son no longer was in a life of sin in the far away land, but blessed to again be with his father and in a house where he was loved and cared for!

This is the crucial point about his salvation: the son had to leave the far away land, and travel a long distance to again be in his father’s land. It wasn’t about forgiveness of his guilt, it wasn’t about a sacrifice, it wasn’t about declaring his son to be something or somewhere he wasn’t, it was about where his son was. His father couldn’t make him to be somewhere he wasn’t. Again using my analogy of the two kingdoms, the son had to leave the country of sin, and travel to the country of God. The son could not be given “being in God’s country” when he simply wasn’t there! It’s not something that can be given like that. God cannot somehow pick up his country – land, trees, hills, rivers and all - and move it to where people are in the kingdom of sin; they just have to “accept it”, as if it’s some courier package requiring their signature for delivery. That would be like saying that I can go to England if someone picks up the whole mass of land and brings England to me. No – of course I’d have to actually be in England – just as we have to actually be in the Kingdom of God, and the perfect example of a person in the Kingdom is Christ.

Secondly, consider Zaccheus the tax collector (Luke 19:2-10). Jesus said that salvation had come to his house not because Zaccheus felt sorry for his wrongs, not because Jesus simply ‘forgave’ him his sins – but because Zaccheus stopped his sinful actions and instead chose to live righteously. Zaccheus changed from being selfish to self-less, and repaid those he had cheated and indeed his whole live appeared transformed from one of sin to one of goodness.

So how was Jesus the ‘saviour’ of Zaccheus? In the Old Testament, there are many instances of people being saved, usually from death and destruction. The ‘saviour’ in these cases is the person who causes them to be saved – it is also called a ‘deliverer’ in the OT, but it is the same word. It is precisely the same sense in the New Testament. Jesus saved Zaccheus by leading him away from sinful living and into righteous living – hence he was the “saviour” of Zaccheus.

Let me say now that this ‘salvation’ requires no cosmic transaction on the cross; it simply requires people to follow Jesus as he leads them away from sinful ways and into Godly ones. Jesus pointed to Himself as this leader and example, saying “I am the Way.” Jesus never saved people by leading them through the “3 simple steps to salvation”, praying a prayer with them, and sending them on their way – and He certainly never told us to do that.

Costly salvation

The heart of the Bible resonates with the desire for God’s people to be holy and pure, living righteous lives that are pleasing to God by selflessly loving Him and selflessly loving others. He desires more than for us to wander in the vast expanse between the kingdom of sin and the kingdom of God, like the lukewarm Laodiceans who He wished “were either hot or cold”. He wants us to live as He has told us to, and thus be part of His Kingdom. He wants our full salvation, not to give us cheap grace. Full salvation requires us to “die with Christ, so that we may live with Him” – which means to forsake our selfishness and live like He did – for only then do we become “in Christ”.

But sadly this whole idea of salvation has become confused with the idea of “eternal life”. Yes, eternal life is a “gift” (Rom 6:23) – but it is given to the people who are in the Kingdom of God. Read the verse before Rom 6:23 where Paul writes about being “slaves to God”. Joining the Kingdom of God requires us to repent – to forsake – from sin and instead be faithful to God. That process is salvation, and is not without great reward, but it also comes at a great cost.

Personal and Social Salvation

Note also the very important aspect of salvation that is often neglected. It is summed up in Isaiah 61:1-3, which Jesus quotes from, saying:

The Spirit of the Lord Jehovah is on Me; because Jehovah has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to preach the acceptable year of Jehovah and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to appoint to those who mourn in Zion, to give to them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the mantle of praise for the spirit of heaviness; so that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of Jehovah, that He might be glorified.

Salvation is for the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives, the oppressed and the bound. What does salvation mean for them? Freedom. Deliverance. Salvation is not simply a personal change in commitment to Godliness, but it involves social liberation from the powers that enslave people. Poor, broken, and oppressed people understand the wonder of being saved from such conditions, and understand what it is to give their whole life in return for it. So, in the story of Zaccheus, not only Zaccheus was saved, but also those who he had been cheating were saved from his selfish oppression.

But I wonder; what do the wealthy, proud, selfish, well-off people of this world really know of salvation? As long as we wealthy Westerners have a selfish mindset and reinterpret Scripture to fit with it, I fear we may never see the real meaning of Salvation on both personal and social levels.


To conclude; we are saved by faithfulness to God – to love Him and to love others, which is in obedience to His commands. A saviour is thus someone who leads people out of sin, and into righteousness – such as Jesus. If we follow Him by imitating Him in His love for God and others, we will be lead into the Kingdom of God, and saved from the kingdom of sin. Salvation is the process of someone being liberated from sin and its effects and instead becoming devoted to Godly living and being blessed by the effects of living in Godly community, and gaining the hope of “eternal life”. Salvation is not cheap grace, but comes at the high cost of following Christ – for His example is the only right way. It costs our selfish desires, our devotion, and even our lives. This cost is not simply for our own sake, but for those who need our selfless love and care to free them from sin and the sin of others, as we ourselves have been freed.

And what about grace? That, I think, I will have to leave for a future post, for not doubt you are wondering why I have not discussed it here. However, I am quite excited because I think all this will take us to quite an exciting conclusion…