Tag Archives: sola gratia

Does God require faith that is 100% without doubt?

9 Oct

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Faith Church. That’s the name of our church. Back in 1968, when they got this church started, why would people choose to name a new church, Faith Church? I wonder what they were thinking.

What is faith?  Most often we think faith is belief. And for good reason. Faith does mean belief.  It means that in our minds we agree with certain statements or facts or ideas.

But we also read in the Bible, in James chapter 2, that “faith without works is dead.”

Think about that.  Faith is belief. But it also must have works, James says, or it is dead.  So what is faith?

Just belief in our mind, or must faith also have some kind of work?

As I mentioned last week, this October at Faith Church we’re commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by talking about the Five Solas of the Reformation.  The Five Solas or Alones are what many scholars consider to be the best way to summarize the teaching of the Reformation.  Last week we looked at Sola Gratia, or Grace Alone.  The second one is Sola Fide.  Fide in Latin means faith.  Today we are talking about Faith Alone.  In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul combines Sola Gratia with Sola Fide: “it is by grace you have been saved through faith, not by works, it is the gift of God.”

So somehow, Paul says, we receive the gift of grace by faith, and not by works.  But as I mentioned above, James said faith without works is dead.  See the apparent contradiction? This brings us back to the question I started with?  What is faith?

In Hebrews 11:1 we read, “faith is being sure of what hope for, certain of what we do not see.”

Does that clear it up for you? I have to admit that on first reading, that definition of faith doesn’t really help me.  So we have to look a bit deeper.

The writer of Hebrews describes faith two ways.  Let’s look at each:

First, Faith is being sure of what we hope for.  We have hopes.  We want them to come true.  It may be a promotion we hope is coming.  It may be hopes for our children and grandchildren.  It may be hopes that we will get out of debt.  It may be a hope that eternal life is in our future.  What hopes do you have?

Faith is being sure of those hopes, that they will become reality.  It is saying, “I know that I know that I know that what I hope for will come true.”  But if we’re honest, we rarely feel that certain.  The opposite of being sure is being unsure.  Uncertainty also goes by the name “doubt”.

Frankly, when we read the Bible, it can be a bit tough to understand how the interplay of faith and doubt works. On one hand we read Jesus teaching that if you have faith, you can move mountains.  On the other hand we read the psalms and the psalmists express their doubts quite a lot.  Does that mean they are lacking in faith?

Is the writer of Hebrews saying that the only true faith is a faith that doesn’t have even one little tiny iota of doubt?  Is that even possible?  Haven’t we been told that expressing our doubts is healthy, and that God welcomes us to converse with him about our doubts?  How would we know if our faith is totally without doubt?  What would that feel like?

Before we can answer that, let’s see what else the writer of Hebrews says about faith.

Second, faith is being certain of what we do not see. What the writer of Hebrews is saying is that there is a side of life that is beyond what we can perceive with our five senses.  You can’t touch it, smell it, taste, see or hear it. It is the spiritual side of life. The realm of God, angels, demons, heaven and hell.  Faith believes it is real, though we cannot see it.  Again, though, the writer says that faith is certain of this. And I ask the writer, “how certain?”  Is it okay to doubt a little bit?  Is it okay to wonder or speculate?  And don’t we all do that at least a little bit?

As I wonder about the tension between faith and doubt, James the brother of Jesus says in chapter 1:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

“He must believe and not doubt”?  If 100% belief is required by God to answer our requests for wisdom, then it seems to me that very, very few of us will ever receive wisdom from God.

Does faith require 100% perfect belief, with no doubt whatsoever?

I don’t think so.  Here’s why.  I personally appreciate the honesty of a guy Jesus once encountered whose child was really in a bad way.  The child was possessed by a demon.  The man brought his child to Jesus, but ran into Jesus’ disciples first.  They tried hard, but couldn’t cast out the demon. When Jesus shows up a bit later, the man is desperate, pleading with Jesus to help.  You know what Jesus says to the man?

“If you can believe, all things are possible for him who believes.”  Wow. All things?  I like the sound of that, but I also think, “Whew, I don’t know if I can believe like that.”  It seems similar to what the father of the demon-possessed child might be thinking too, because he says back to Jesus,

“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

I love that line. It resonates with what I so often feel.  The tension between faith and doubt.  The knowledge that while I have faith, I don’t think it is perfect faith.  Jesus knew this about the man, and you know what Jesus did?

Maybe Jesus said, “Wait a minute, you have some unbelief in there? Sorry, man.  Game over.  Take your demon-possessed child elsewhere.”

But Jesus did not say that.  He saw the man’s tension of faith and doubt, and he healed that man’s child.

Let’s remember this man’s tension between faith and doubt, and think about it in light of the definition of faith in Hebrews 1.  God doesn’t require us to have perfect faith.  He does require faith, though.  And tomorrow we’ll talk more about what it means to place our faith in God.

For now, I think we should be like the man who brought his demon-possessed child to Jesus, and say “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief!”

How to become more gracious

6 Oct

Image result for responding graciouslyHave you ever had an encounter with someone who was less than gracious?  Have you been accused?  Confronted?

Or maybe you’re in the store, waiting in line at checkout, and right in front of you is a family with young children.  Just then one of the kids start freaking out because the parent won’t let them have candy.  Is it hard for you to be gracious?

What if the parent is you and the kid is yours?  Are you able to graciously stand firm while your offspring is throwing a tantrum?  What if the other customers around you start acting frustrated with you, as if it is your fault your child is losing it?  So you’re being hit with your child’s poor behavior on one hand, and the poor behavior of adults on the other.  Are you gracious then?

What if your boss cuts your hours?  Gives you a poor performance review?  It can be very hard to be gracious.

I use the app IFTTT on my phone.  “If this, then that.”  It is an app that automates your phone to do tasks.  I have found it to be amazing.  For example, IFTTT helped me set up my phone so that I send myself a text message reminding myself to take out the trash on Thursday nights.  It sends me a text each 1st of the month to remind me that the mortgage is due.  IFTTT can do so much.  One interesting feature it can do is a rescue call.  And by “rescue”, I don’t mean rescue from danger.  Instead IFTTT will rescue me from one of those conversations when I badly need to go, but the other person won’t stop talking.  Or maybe they’re talking about something awkward, maybe politics, and I want to get away, but I don’t know how to do so graciously.  All I need to do now is tap the IFTTT phone icon on my home screen, and within seconds, IFTTT makes an automated phone call to me.  All I have to do at that point is say to my conversation partner “I’m so sorry, I need to go and take this call.”  Gracious!

There is hope!  Not only can we use technology to graciously rescue us in difficult situations, we can learn to become more gracious.  If you know there is bitterness or a habit of poor responses coming out of you, then you can be changed from the inside out.  You can become a more gracious person.  Read on!

This week we’ve been talking about grace.  When we accept God’s gracious gift, we are not only taking on a whole new family name, but we are also saying that we will live like a child of grace, to live like Jesus lived.

If you want to know how to live a life of grace, study Jesus.  In 1 John 2:6 one of Jesus closest friends, John, says “Whoever claims to live in Jesus must walk or live as Jesus did.”  Accepting God’s gracious gift, then, is not just saying “I believe in and receive the gift of God’s grace”.  It is living a life that looks more and more like the gracious life of Jesus.

But a life of grace is not always easy.  In fact, when calling us to a life of grace, God calls us to something that can be difficult.

I recently read the book, Messy Grace, by Caleb Kaltenbach, and I highly encourage you to read it as well.  Caleb is a pastor who parents are gay.  They were married, divorcing when he was 2yrs old.  Soon after the divorce, his mom started a lesbian lifestyle, and she raised Caleb in that community.  To him, therefore, it was normal.  His dad remained single, though years later Caleb learned that his dad was gay.  So Caleb grew up in a family environment, mostly with his mom and her partner, that normalized the lesbian lifestyle and felt the pain of hate and discrimination from less-than-gracious Christians.

But something unexpected happened.  Caleb, through friends, a youth group, and reading the Bible, learned about and received the gift of God’s grace.  As he studied the Bible, he changed his mind about same-sex relations.  Caleb then had to come out to his parents.  But it was a very different coming out.  Instead of announcing to his Christian family that he was coming out as gay, Caleb announced to his gay parents that he was coming out as a Christian and he no longer agree with their lifestyle.  It was brutally difficult for Caleb to live out the gracious life of Christ in his family.

Living in families is like that.  We all know this.  Sharing life together as a church family is like this.

Grace is not easy.  Grace can be very difficult when people are unkind to you.  Grace can be difficult when people make bad choices that affect you.  Grace can be difficult because people can be difficult. But as we learn from Jesus how to live the gracious life, we’ll notice how, time and time again, he chose grace when people were being extremely difficult to him and others.

Another difficult aspect of living a gracious life is that it doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want because, “God is gracious, and he’ll forgive me.  His grace covers it all anyway!”  One of the writers of the New Testament, Paul, referred to this thought process in Romans 6.  There he asked, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace will abound?”  Have you ever thought something like that?  That you can do something sinful “just this once” because God will forgive you anyway?  If we’re honest, I suspect most of us have thought that about God’s grace.  Guess how Paul answers his question.  “Should we go on sinning so that grace will abound?  By no means!”  Accepting God’s gift of grace means that we surrender to our way of doing things, and we give our lives to do things God’s way.

In another writing, Paul says to Titus who was a pastor friend of his, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

What this means is that we respond to God’s gift of grace by living lives of grace.  A graceful life is one that pursues self-control, purity, and treating others with grace.  That’s where this grace thing gets messy.  Imagine what it is like for God to be gracious to us when we are regularly thinking, doing, and saying things that are not self-controlled and pure. Imagine how he feels. He was so gracious to us, to the point of sending his son to give his life for us.  And how do we respond to that grace?  We choose to ignore it by sinning.

And just as we can messy to God, others can be messy to us.

So what will it look like to be gracious to people in your life? Sola Gratia means that we are children of grace, and we should be known not only for receiving God’s grace, but also for showering that grace on those around us.

I want you to think.  Who do you have a hard time being gracious to?  Remember that grace is undeserved favor.  Who rubs you the wrong way?  Who do you need to be actively gracious to?  Have you allowed yourself to develop a less than gracious attitude to people in your church family?  What about in your own family?  Is there anyone for whom grace is very messy for you?

What will you do to show more grace?  What will you do to demonstrate that you are a child of grace?

  1. Evaluate yourself. Have people ever told you that you are less than gracious?  That you are intimidating or difficult or argumentative?  Have someone who is able to speak the truth in love to you evaluate you.  Don’t trust yourself to give yourself an accurate accounting.  Some of us are too hard on ourselves.  Some of us are too easy.  Get a true perception of whether or not you are living as a child of grace.
  2. Learn to live graciously. Study Jesus’ life in the Gospels (the four accounts of Jesus’ life, recorded in the Bible), Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  And as you are reading, ask God to help you to learn to be gracious from Jesus.  Write down the ways you see Jesus being gracious.  Then seek out someone in your life who is known for being gracious, and ask them to teach you.  Get the book Messy Grace.  It is excellent.
  3. Practice. Are their people in your life who you have been less than gracious to?  Do you need to go to them and ask forgiveness?  And to show that you are seeking a new gracious pattern with them, what is a gracious act you can to do to start treating them differently?  Maybe a small gift, maybe a nice card, maybe a compliment?

God wants to adopt you

5 Oct

Image result for courtroom and adoptionI have been inside a courtroom for actual proceedings five times in my life.  The first time was my fault, and it was scary. The second time was a school field trip, and it was a relief…it wasn’t about me this time!  Those last three times? Well, they have been astoundingly beautiful.

In each of those last three times I sat in the courtroom, I heard the judge declare that a child was now part of a new family.  I cried tears of joy as my brother, sister and close friends each welcomed those children into their lives, adopting them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the beautiful New Testament teaching about grace that I have been talking about this week is summed up in this picture of adoption.  God, we are told, in his grace, adopts us as his sons and daughters, through the work that Jesus did in his life, death and resurrection.

A scholar I found describes it like this, “Grace is not God’s way of helping us to become obedient children; it is rather God adopting us; unworthy though we are.”

We who did not have a family, because of our sinfulness, can become part of God’s family, because of what Jesus did for us.  Think about that. We are all orphans because of our sin.  Separated from family.  Across that chasm of separation God says, “I want you in my family, but there is something keeping us apart, your sin. But I have good news for you! I love you so much, I’m going to fix that.”  And he did fix that, through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Now all who place their faith on Christ can receive the gift of God’s grace.  When you receive that gift, God adopts you into his family.

I love how Ephesians 1:4-5 depicts God saying to us “I chose you to be adopted into my family.” Have you received the gift of God’s grace to be adopted into his family?

There is something important to bring up here.  We can also choose not to accept the gift.  God doesn’t force us to be in his family.  We have to hold out our arms with open hands, and receive the gift of grace.  When we receive the gift, we are saying that we want to be a part of God’s family.  And not just in name only.  It is not just a label.  “Christian”.

There is a change that begins to take place in us when we receive the gift of God’s grace.  So what happens when we receive that gift of grace?  What do our new lives look like as children in God’s family?  More on that tomorrow!

 

The one word that will help you step off the hamster wheel of not feeling good enough

4 Oct

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Have you ever felt like you are not good enough?  Maybe you’ve wondered if God is disappointed with you?  Are you tired of your failures?  Do you feel like you are on a hamster wheel, struggling to make progress in life, stop a bad habit, become more whole and healthy, be more consistent, stop a sin, think more purely?  But you watch yourself mess up again and again.  Ever been there?

I’d like to ask you to continue reading this post, to learn how to get off the hamster wheel.  One word is needed: grace.

This week here and here I’ve mentioned that the concept of grace was so foundational for Martin Luther’s decision in 1517, and the years that followed, to make a break from the Catholic church.  But what is grace? “Unmerited favor” is a very common definition. As I researched grace, I found so many wonderful definitions that expanded this definition. Maybe one of these will really be meaningful to you.

Grace is:

“God giving what is not owed.”

“God extending himself toward others.”

“God sharing his Fatherly love for creation in the Son through the Spirit.”

“God sharing his own perfect life with those who are not perfect.”

“God remaining fully himself, yet freely taking the initiative to share or communicate himself with those who have turned their backs on him.”

“The way in which God extends himself to the world so that creatures can come to know and love him.”

I think my favorite is from John Stott, who said that grace is, “love that cares and stoops and rescues.”

As you read those conceptions of grace, maybe you’re thinking, “Those are nice, but I was already pretty familiar with the concept of grace.  What is the big deal?”

If you think something like that, I wouldn’t fault you. We Protestants have been exposed to it for 500 years. But for Luther, this was a major eye-opener.  One of Luther’s main concerns was how to understand a concept the early Christian writer Paul talked about in the Romans, the concept of “the righteousness of God.”

In Luther’s era, which was the late Medieval period, it was common to understand righteousness as what a person did to make themselves acceptable in God’s sight.  In other words, if you follow God’s Law, they thought, you will be OK. But all his attempts to be a good Christian, to follow God’s Law, left Luther with a nagging fear that he wasn’t doing enough to truly make himself acceptable in God’s eyes. Luther’s response: try even harder. So Luther practiced spiritual disciplines like you would not believe. If prayer and fasting were Olympic events, Luther would get a gold medal. But still it never felt to him like he was righteous enough.

Martin Luther himself once noted, “The Law says, ‘you must do this,’ and it is never done.”

But something amazing happened as Luther was studying Romans.  Right in the middle of his fear that he was not righteous enough, Romans suddenly took on a new meaning to Luther.  In Romans 4, through Paul’s teaching of the story of Abraham, “righteousness” is described as credited to those who have faith.  Righteousness, therefore, is not something we can earn.

Remember the verse I mentioned yesterday, Ephesians 2:8-9? “For it is by grace you have been save through faith, not by works, it is the gift of God.” Paul’s teaching in Romans 4 and Ephesians 2 transformed Martin Luther’s perception of Law, righteousness, and grace.  That meant his relationship with God was changed.  God’s grace wasn’t something that Luther could manufacture.  God’s grace is a gift to be received.

Earlier in this post I said that Martin Luther himself once said that “The Law says, ‘you must do this,’ and it is never done.”  That was only half the quote.  Luther adds, “Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.”

Maybe you have found yourself on the same hamster wheel as Luther, trying so hard to be good, but never feeling like you make progress.  You can get off the wheel by accepting the gift of God’s grace. Think about that.  God wants to give you his grace!

Want to talk further?  Just post in the comments below.  Tomorrow we’ll keep looking at God’s grace and how he wants to save us.

How the Winnebago can teach us something important about grace

3 Oct

Yesterday I introduced the new sermon series I’m giving at Faith Church this October. We’re pausing the Deuteronomy series in order to make way for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Each week this month we’ll be looking at one of the Five Solas of the Reformation.  This week we start with Sola Gratia, translated as Grace Alone.

 

Last evening on our local news, the station’s cameras captured a local vigil for victims of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas. As they held candles, the crowd sang the words of the what is perhaps the most famous of all Christian hymns. You know the hymn, right? Sing it as you read it:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,

that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found;

was blind but now I see.

What is this thing called grace?

One of the first followers of Jesus, Paul (also called Saul in the New Testament), himself having experienced grace firsthand, wrote a letter about grace to Christians in the ancient city of Ephesus.  He knew them well and wanted to encourage them with a proper understanding of grace.  Many consider Ephesians 2:8-9 to be the apex of his teaching about grace.  There Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Saved by grace?  What does Paul mean?  Grace as a gift of God?  What is that about?

My task this week is to answer those questions.  Today, let’s start with another amazing gift of grace that comes first: creation. Think about what a gracious gift it is that God created the universe and that he created everything in it. God has shown his grace in creation. He didn’t have to create us. He didn’t have to create our world. But he did. Grace is behind the very first chapters of the Bible.

What is so shocking is humanity’s response to God’s grace.  In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve sin and are banned from the bountiful garden God planted for them. Not long after that, their son Cain murders his brother Abel. In due time we read about how violent and rebellious the earth would become, thus leading to the flood.

What we see in these early chapters of Genesis is God’s grace in Creation, followed by man’s rebellion against that grace. We call this rebellion the Fall into sin. The grace of Creation leads to the Fall into sin.

The sin of humanity didn’t stop when God sent the flood and determined to start over with Noah and his family. The sin of humanity didn’t stop when God made a wonderful gracious promise to Abraham and Sarah, that their offspring would be a great nation through whom he would bless the world. The sin of humanity didn’t stop when that great nation, Israel, entered into a special covenant with God. God gave them his law, and they couldn’t keep his law. None of us can. We are in trouble because of our inability to stop sinning.

Theologians point out two lies we often believe.  Are you believing either of these?

  • Sin is something we can manage
  • God helps those who helps themselves.

These are lies.

Luther once wrote, “the person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he is doubly guilty.” You cannot help yourself earn God’s favor. You cannot just manage your sin.

The word “religion” itself can be an indication of these lies we believe.  Religion speaks of spiritual rituals that people use in order to accomplish God’s favor. As I was studying for this, one writer pointed out that we are a species that glories in our accomplishments. I saw this firsthand when we were on vacation this past June. My wife’s extended family met up near South Bend, Indiana.  We scoured the internet prior to the trip searching for what to do when we were there. One thing we came across was the RV Hall of Fame.

Think about that.  The RV Hall of Fame.  Come look at what we accomplished!  We people have made awesome RVs. We made the Winnebago.

What kind of creatures want to tout as an accomplishment the Winnebago?  We humans do.

In all fairness, humanity has accomplished a lot of good. But can all of our accomplishments make us acceptable in God’s eyes? No, because we are far from perfect. Our sin has created a brokenness between God and us, clearly depicted in Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the perfection of the Garden of Eden. It wasn’t just Adam and Eve that were separated from God, though, but, because we all sin, all of humanity is separated from God. That is a huge problem, not only for us, but also for God.  He graciously created us and wants to be close with us. Because of sin, that is not possible.

That brings us back to Ephesians 2:8-9 and the concept of saving grace.  God steps in to our fallen world with his gift grace.  And tomorrow we’ll learn what that saving grace is all about.