The Gospel says that you are deeply loved, completely forgiven, fully pleasing, totally accepted and significant in God‘s eyes through the merit of Jesus Christ. Nothing you ever do will cause Him to love you any more or any less. He loves you strictly by His grace given to you through Jesus. Encountering God‘s free and sovereign grace is supposed to lead us to an overwhelming sense of gratitude and a complete willingness to give everything to God who has given us everything in His Son.
Of course, free love and grace have led some to licentiousness (license to sin) assuming unearned acceptance gives a new freedom to do anything they want. Paul anticipated this question after explaining that we are justified (made right with God) not by our works but by grace through faith:
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2).” He taught Titus, “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 (Titus 2:11-12).” After 11 chapters of explaining the gratuitous nature of salvation and mercy He explains to the Romans, “Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship.” Similarly after 3 chapters of describing the work of Christ to call us into God’s family, Paul exhorts the Ephesians, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Ephesians 4:1).”
Recently I have been attempting to teach my daughter how to drive a car. I’ve found that one of the more important principles of driving is actually avoiding the ditches and staying on the road. But sometimes, because of our backgrounds, when we encounter the gospel and feel its freedom from rule-keeping, we can ride down the gospel road as if there is only one ditch. The ditch that we are most often aware of is the Legalism Ditch.
Legalism is a system of belief that says one is justified (made right with God) by faith plus the merit of our own works. Legalism is a works-based, conditional acceptance by God which, if fulfilled, places God in the position as the debtor, the one who owes. Legalism is mechanical because it will only do the absolute minimum of what is absolutely required. This leads to a joylessness in life where we perform burdensome duties as a down payment for heaven. But legalism will never get anyone into heaven because it is impossible to be good enough. It is Obedience-based Acceptance.
The other ditch of which we are often not aware is the Antinomianism Ditch.
Antinomianism is system of belief that says one does not need to give any proof of a life of repentance and virtue as evidence of being justified (made right with God). Antinomianism is a perversion of Paul’s teaching on grace and actually mocks the holiness of God and the spiritual law that He gives us as a guide to holy living. Antinomianism teaches that grace means that I am freed from morality and freed from adhering to any moral law leading many back into bondage to sin. Antinomianism rejects the very notion or expectation of obedience as legalistic. It is Obedience-free Acceptance.
But the Gospel Road teaches something different than Legalism and something other than Antinomianism. The Gospel is an Acceptance-based Obedience. This means that if I know that I’m loved apart from how I perform, I will give my all. Now because we are justified by Christ, we are free to fulfill the Law by Loving God, and Loving Others, though we won’t do this perfectly. In the gospel, our new motive is to want eagerly to live righteously so that obedience becomes a natural expression of our grateful hearts.
Martin Luther clarified the gospel road in this way,
“Whoever he be that is assuredly persuaded that Christ is his righteousness, doesn’t only cheerfully and gladly work well in his vocation…but submits to all manner of burdens and dangers in his present life, because he knows that this is the will of God, and that this obedience pleases him… No one should think we reject the importance of good works or of obeying the law. When we receive the Christian righteousness, we consequently can live a good life, naturally, out of gratitude.”
Remember all the patterns of grace that are in heaven. You think, oh, what a monument of grace you would like to be! There are many thousands as rich monuments as you can be. The greatest sinner did never pass the grace of Christ. Do not despair. Hope still. When the clouds are blackest, even then look towards Christ, the standing pillar of the Father’s love and grace, set up in heaven for all sinners to gaze upon continually. Whatever Satan or conscience say, do not conclude against yourself, Christ shall have the last word.
by Thomas Wilcox (1621-1687)
“But I would feed you with the best of foods.
I would satisfy you with honey from the rock.”
What are we to think about our Lord Jesus Christ attending a wedding reception, an event where excesses are common and at different times in history, clergy had even been forbidden to attend? Some are uncomfortable with such a scene and salve their consciences by fabricating a history of an early weakened fermentation. Even if there were grains of truth in the claims, drunkenness still existed and Christians were exhorted not to be drunk with wine and qualified elders were not to be drunkards (Cf. Eph. 5:18; 1 Tim. 3:1:3). It was later said of Jesus, “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!‘ (Luke 7:33-34). At least during his public ministry as an adult, Jesus lived like the average person and did things according to the customs of his day. The custom of his day was that people commonly drank wine, so He drank wine and ate the foods he was offered. John the Baptist by contrast confined himself to a peculiar diet, and even abstained from ordinary food.
Calvin comments, “Those who think that the highest perfection consists in outward austerity (strictness) of life, and who pronounce it to be an angelical life …when a person will drink no wine ought to attend to this passage.” He argues that if the highest level of holiness is wrapped up in abstaining from wine, then principally, John the Baptist would have to rank higher than the Son of God. Of course, Jesus by His example gives us no license to indulge in luxuries nor does He grant permission to those who have been under the dominion of strong drink. While Christ accommodated himself to the usages of ordinary life, he always maintained a sobriety truly divine and He did not encourage excesses or unlawful behavior.
Christ was never interested in an outward form of spirituality and was insistent that it’s not what a person takes into his mouth that defiles him but what comes out of his heart (Cf. Matt. 15:11). The Apostle Paul exclaimed that his boast was the testimony of his conscience in that he behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity by the grace of God and that he was concerned that the some were being led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (Cf. 2 Cor. 1:12 ; 11:2-4). In other words, neither Christ nor the Apostle Paul gave us any room to create a Christian spirituality that was defined by what we ate or drank but instead modeled a spirituality of love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith (1Tim. 1:5). Abstaining from one practice or another is not what counts, but instead what counts is faith working itself out through love (Cf. Gal. 5:6). When it came to drinking, Jesus encouraged a moderate and contextual use of his created gifts.
Holy Saturday is the time in between John 19:41-42 and John 20:1: Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there…(INSERT HOLY SATURDAY HERE)…Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb…
Holy Saturday is the day between the Good Friday Dusk and Easter Sunday Morning Dawn. It consists of over 30 Sabbath hours of time between Friday Sunset and Sunday Sunrise in which the gospel writers give us no details, it is just EMPTY SPACE and DEAD AIR. We know what Good Friday feels like: despair, darkness, defeat and hopelessness. We know what Easter Sunday feels like: joy, light, victory and hope. But does Holy Saturday have a feel?
Recognizing that the Passion Week represents a continuous historical narrative, churches typically pause to enter into emotion of Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday or Tenebrae) and some pause to remember the journey of our Lord on the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday. But then we enter into Holy Saturday, a time when the sanctuaries of the old churches are stripped bare and lay in darkness. No services are scheduled, no sermons are preached, no one gathers for fellowship and there is no Lord’s Supper in order to commemorate the non-event of Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is a dead intermission, an empty void between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ when His body lays in the tomb. I’ve never heard a message preached about Holy Saturday and I don’t recall singing a Hymn where Holy Saturday is given more than a sentence. But in the sentence of Holy Saturday (or more accurately, the parenthesis) there is an eerie feeling of familiarity to me.
I see that we live every day in a similar yet post-resurrection tension as we wait for the King to come back to consummate the Kingdom he inaugurated 2000 years ago. In between His two advents, we sin, we feel guilt, anxiety, shame, restlessness, we deny Him, sometimes betray Him, life sometimes feels dark and we often wonder what to do next just like the disciples on that First Holy Saturday. The difference living parenthetically on this side of Easter is that we can always turn back with understanding to the significance of the Cross to find forgiveness and mercy and embrace the life and certain hope imparted to us through the Resurrection.
(Inspired by Alan E. Lewis: “Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday“)
Don’t we all need a second chance and even a third chance; do I hear seven? How about seventy times seven? When the Savior disrupts our failure, misery and self-pity with mercy, forgiveness and a second chance it is not a decision He makes on the fly nor a reaction in real time but instead our failure was anticipated, even expected. In fact, ALL of our failures, those before and after we met Christ were absorbed in the sacrifice of the cross. Our failure is the backdrop of the God’s sweet plan of Love, Grace, Redemption and Restoration. And while we might be surprised that we’ve blown it again, He’s not. He is a Savior who has planned to absorb our failings before they occur in real time.
When Jesus uses the repetitive phrase, “Truly, Truly” He is declaring something to be a certainty: “It’s going to happen, bet the farm!” This is the exact phrase Jesus uttered when He anticipated and predicted Peter’s terrible failure, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” Peter couldn’t imagine that he would ever deny his association with Jesus though the Savior predicted His fall with absolute certainty down to the minute details. It is easy to understand what Peter did. He and Jesus were going places together. They were defeating the bad guys and now the bad guys were winning. His Hope of Salvation was betrayed by an insider, who afterward seemed even more powerful than the Savior Himself. And when the Savior was whisked away by wicked men, Peter bailed. Our journeys are not much different than Peter’s. We too invest an inordinate amount of our hopes and dreams in specific, imagined future scenarios for how our lives will play out and when our dreams don’t come true, we get disoriented, become vulnerable to temptation, find ourselves compromising our faith and then realize a deep emptiness inside of us. We’re like Peter in the sense that we imagine that the gospel is the way to happiness, success, popularity, status, control and blessing. We wrongly believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ will provide us with what we really want in addition to placing us in right, loving relationship with our Heavenly Father. And so when God doesn’t come through on fulfilling our dream, we think He’s abandoned us and we’re ready to abandon Him. Though God is jealous of our heart attitude which says, “I love you but I must have this other thing too,” He extends his hand of mercy and consolation to draw us back to be satisfied in His love.
“If looks could kill” is a familiar idiomatic expression used to characterize the look of strong hostility in the penetrating eyes of a murderous heart. Often we evaluate the look we get from people because the eyes tell us much about what the heart is thinking. After Peter’s third denial of and disassociation from Jesus in the midst of His interrogation by the High Priest, the eyes of the Lord meet Peter’s. But what kind of look was this?
Peter had denied any association with Christ, with no feelings of repentance, his heart becoming harder each time, searing his conscience. The denials became progressively easier, a warning to us about how sensitive we ought to be to our consciences upon the first occasion for sin. The first time, it won’t seem like a big deal to sin, but the second time creates a habit and the third time we risk the lulling to sleep of our conscience, grieving the Holy Spirit within us our will is rendered ineffective to resist anything. When we push through the barrier of grieving the Spirit, we find ourselves on the other side of the fence with no one to restrain us. Certainly Peter understood this retrospectively when he wrote years later in his first epistle, “Therefore preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” We must be early on guard against sin which desires to master us but when we sin there is only one thing that can bring us back to Jesus, His Look. Luke 22 tells the story this way,
But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
While Peter was warming himself by the fire numbering himself among wicked men and Jesus was being struck in the cheek by the closed fist of an interrogator in the courtyard of the high priest the entire scene enters into slow motion. What happens feels like a private moment between Jesus and Peter. Only Jesus sees that Peter has fallen while everyone else seems oblivious. There are no words exchanged and the Savior doesn’t disgustingly shake his head nor look away in disappointment. This is not even a parental, “I told you so” but a look of sympathy and mercy. This is a look that says, “I understand and I want you to come back!” Jesus knows the intensity of a battle with the evil one so he his sympathetic to Peter in his failure. This is the look of a friend who understands and a God who loves.
In Peter’s darkest hour, Jesus gives him THE LOOK of Mercy that initiates Peter’s repentance instantly after the moment of his greatest failure. When we sin, the only thing to bring us back is an apprehension of the mercy of God that is found in Christ’s look of sympathy and mercy. The Look that says, “I understand and I want you to come back.” Even in our most rebellious, frustrated and independent moments when our hearts rage against God we must catch the glance of the Savior, to see His eyes inviting us back to intimacy with Him. He gives us an efficacious look that meets our eyes and its rays of grace penetrate our hearts. When we fall, our repentance is always initiated by the Lord’s look of mercy. If He is not merciful, we should not dare turn back to Him but He is merciful, generous and patient towards us. What brings Peter back and what brings us back time and again is the Lord’s look of sympathy and mercy. This is no ordinary look nor a look that could kill, it is a look that gives life!
Too often we bury ourselves in the busyness of following Jesus and serving others instead of relaxing and receiving uncomfortable grace from Him. Our hearts are often resistant to love that it poured out on us, a resistance that forces our bodies to tighten up inhibiting us from receiving. I think about the tender act of love bestowed on the disciples by Jesus as He washed their feet. How hard was it for the disciples to sit and receive that little act of grace? Yet an even bigger act of grace was to come as He went to the cross for them.
While Jesus certainly wants us to follow Him in doing acts of humble service and not to see ourselves as too good or too big to do little things, menial tasks and even costly, inconvenient acts; doing, for most of us, is easier than receiving! In fact we can bury ourselves in service while never having to sit and receive. Jesus asks us to first relax and receive from Him then expend ourselves generously toward others only to come back to Him to relax and receive again.