Friday, August 21, 2015

Coming into Maturity: Grace, Love, and Service

Proverb 29:27 The righteous despise the unjust; the wicked despise the godly.

The dichotomy mentioned is Proverb 29:27 is being played out in our culture today.  Jesus said the world will hate you.  But take heart, I have overcome the world.  

The world may be against us.  It most certainly is.  But it isn't so bad.  God is with us.  Of course it's better to be with God.  Hopefully we can keep those one in the same.  And mainly by not keeping anything, but allowing God to do the "keeping."  

He keeps us in the palm of his hand.  Of course that's just a metaphor.  He doesn't promise us particularly easy conditions.  Yet it is likely that our lives will improve in God-ways.  In the ways of the world, no, but that doesn't matter anyway.  The Christian life is the best life, not because of ease and comfort, but because of meaningfulness, and the finding of the ultimate foundation of life, God himself.  It is the best life now, just not in a worldly way.  I have found the very meaning of life, the very purpose of being, that is the best life for me, now, and forever.  

We know what it means to follow Jesus Christ.  We know what it means to trust in him, and his victory, to be Christian.  But can we come into maturity?  Is there a deeper Christian life?  There most certainly is.   

It's not necessarily some incredible breakthrough.  But it seems to be a growing process.  Let us examine ourselves.  Often we must look back to the simple disciplines.  Even all the way back to the very basic precept of faith: Is God at the center?  Is God the only number one of my life, and your life?  Would you forsake your own family, your own friends, your social status to remain loyal to God?  

Or as Jesus said: "If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison--your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple." -Luke 14:26 (NLT)

A group of thugs break into your house at night, and put guns to your wife, your children, and you.  They demand that you renounce Christ or they'll kill your family.  What do you do?  Some might think this is a ridiculous proposition.  In fact, it's a daily possibility for persecuted Christians in dozens of countries in the middle east.  What would you do?   

They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.
Revelation 12:11

Family is second to God.  God comes first.  Our allegiance to God comes before everything else in our lives, even our families.  We have to make sure our order in the mind is correct.

Assuming we serve God alone, with all we have, how can we understand our salvation in our minds?  We don't always feel these things.  Feeling does not dictate reality.  Thank God for that.  Feeling tends to follow I think, it lags behind our understanding, but eventually catches up.  

This is coming into maturity, when we begin to feel and to know the things we believe.  God reveals himself through knowledge, one of the most blessed gifts of being human: the gift of language, of art, and of writing.  God speaks to us through knowledge.  He helps us to know him through the revelation of Jesus Christ, in knowledge, received through belief. 

Jesus taught through parables.  A parable is a simple story, used to describe a spiritual truth.  Let's see if we can understand our salvation through the idea of an orchard.  There is a lot of confusion about what it means to be a born-again follower of Jesus Christ.  Mainly the issue is of the life one lives once saved.  Secondly the issue is once we are saved, can we lose our salvation?  

Being saved is like being transplanted, made new in Jesus Christ, and replanted in a beautiful orchard of apple trees.  You are one of the orchard, the body of Christ on Earth.  There is no way to work your way into the orchard with good works or with service to others, or personal holiness.  The only way to be born again into the orchard is by grace, through faith alone in Jesus Christ.  God the Father draws us to the son Jesus and we receive him as our own.  Once entered into the orchard, the believer rests all their trust, all their hope, all their faith on Jesus Christ, that he is the sole reason they are born again, saved, washed clean of their past sins, and may now enter eternal life in the future.  That is the first aspect of the arrangement of salvation.

But there is a second aspect to this arrangement often neglected, that is sanctification, or growing in holiness.  This is a requirement of the arrangement.  They often call this "repentance."  I don't like that word, so we'll call it "embracing a changed mind."  We decide to abandon our opinions about what is right and wrong, and we embrace what God says in the Bible.  We begin to transition from lustful attitudes, sinful attitudes, selfishness, and fear, transitioning into ever-increasing holiness.  We grow into the fruits of the spirit through the working of the Holy Spirit upon us, in the process of sanctification.

The only way to go about growing in holiness is through Jesus Christ.  We stay very close to God, praying in the Spirit, cooperating with God in our sanctification.  We start to deal with sin issues, like selfishness, over-eating, cigarette smoking, poor sexual behavior, drinking too much, the list could be extended greatly.  In so doing, we the new tree transplanted into the orchard begins to grow up.  Roots begin to dig deeply into the ground.  The trunk begins to thicken, protecting the tree from weather, insects, and other issues.  Branches begin to stretch out, strengthening the tree, reaching up toward heaven.  The sun beats down, strengthening the tree.  The river along side the orchard nourishes the tree helping it grow green and strong.  A lifelong process has begun, of learning to live in the Spirit.

Romans 8:13 (ESV) says "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."

When the tree, the believer lives according to the Spirit and embraces holiness, sanctification; then they live.  But I think we've all seen the opposite.  Let's take an example of the opposite: You see the individual really embrace Christ, they really see their need for a savior, and they come into the family.  But they don't necessarily want to change the way they live.  They still go out and get drunk regularly.  They still engage in sex with random guys or girls, and then make excuses for it.  When they're confronted about their poor conduct they get angry, say how they're saved by grace, and tell the person to stop judging them.  Eventually this person becomes confused.  They start to lose their faith in Christ.  They start to fasten their thoughts to ideas in the world like naturalism, wealth, greed, etc.  More and more you notice them with arms folded over their chest during the sermon with an upset look on their face on Sundays.  Eventually they stop coming all together.  Maybe you see them one day at a coffee shop and ask them where they've been.  Then they cross their arms over their chest, they have a somewhat flustered, defiant look in their eyes.  And they go on a short little tirade about how the church is oppressive, and the Bible isn't really real, and God doesn't really exist, and look at how Christians treat LGBT people.  You can tell by the look in their eyes that they're desperate and they don't even believe what they are saying.  They're just tossing out generalizations made by the culture, because they know deep down Jesus is God, but they don't want to change how they live.  This is the tree transplanted into the orchard that begins to dry up, shrivel, turn gray, and bears sour fruit.  This tree is dug up by the keeper of the orchard and tossed into the brush fire (John 15:6).  And it is burned (John 15:6).

There is a third requirement, Jesus talks about it in John chapter 15 when he speaks of the parable of the vine and the branches.  Jesus also alludes to it in the parable of the talents in Matthew chapter 25.  Also in Matthew 7:17-20 (ESV) Jesus says, "So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits."  

In other words, we must bear good fruit to be a part of the orchard.  What does bearing fruit mean?  Bearing fruit means doing good works in the service of God.  It means serving the lost, showing mercy to those who have done evil, and it means sharing the gospel.  It means faith in action.  

So in every due season, the owner of the orchard comes out and finds good fruit on the branches of the trees, and collects the fruit.  In producing fruit we find the formula for abiding in Christ. We abide in Christ forever, when we show love to his people, and mercy to his people (1 John 2:17).  We abide (remain) in Christ when we live as Christ lived (1 John 2:6).  We abide in Christ forever when we bear fruit in keeping with his mandates (John 14:15).  

 Now let's look briefly at three mindsets that can help us mature in the knowledge of God's design for the salvation of humanity.  We'll call these three the mindset of grace, the mindset of love, and the mindset of service.

1. A Mindset of Grace.

1 Corinthians 15:10 (ESV) But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 

Someone might say, "You're preaching a works gospel!"  That isn't the case.  That's what you call a straw-man argument.  They misrepresent the description and then attack the distortion they hold up as your view.  

The gospel is that Jesus Christ is God with us (Immanuel).  He lived a perfect life of love and service.  He died a perfect death on the cross calling upon heaven asking God to forgive the people killing him.  Three days later he reclaimed his life supernaturally, and walked the Earth physically showing himself to hundreds of people in the process.  We trust in that completely, we have faith that Christ died in our place on the cross.  That means we are then transplanted into the orchard of God.  We are made new in his family.  

The debate comes when we say that falling away is a possibility.  The scriptures are tireless on this point, of the fact of falling away, there are hundreds of scriptures that testify to that reality, but still many say "once saved, always saved."  It's a troubling false doctrine they call "eternal security."  Sadly it leads to many thinking they are saved, and they are not.  Eternal security is part of the "TULIP" the five points of Calvinism.  Many in the reformed crowd hold to this view.  It's important to remember that when debating issues like "eternal security vs. conditional security" and "egalitarian vs. complementarian" and "christus victor vs. penal substitutionary atonement", these are what we call family arguments.  Christians all believe in certain core truths from the Bible, and these are more side arguments.  We're all still Christians.  

But the correct view in light of the full witness of the four gospels and the NT letters is something called "conditional security."  Conditional security means we are saved by grace through faith alone in Christ.  But it also means once we are saved, born again, it is our responsibility to pursue and build upon that foundation.  If we do not, we wither, grow disillusioned, and eventually will fall away from the cornerstone, faith in Christ. 

The mindset of grace means we know that through Christ alone we have obtained eternal life.  It is the most important focus of the mind in this three-fold understanding.  We need to rest all of our hopes, all of our  faith, and all of our life work on the understanding that Jesus Christ has made us perfect before God.  We rest everything on the work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.  We do not trust in our works, but trust in Christ alone.  And we feel deeply assured in our minds that God will keep us safely in his orchard, in his pasture, in his safe care until the very day of Christ.  

Romans 8:38-39 (NIV) says "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  We may know in our minds and feel in our hearts that our salvation is securely placed with God in Christ in heaven, and that God will work tirelessly to keep us in the family.  We may resist that, but if we choose to embrace it, we need never fear falling away.  

2. A Mindset of Love.

1 Peter 1:22 (ESV) Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.

Now let's talk holiness.  Or as theologians say "the process of sanctification."  This is the mindset of love.  At first that might seem like an odd position of the mind.  Shouldn't it be more like a "mindset of holiness" or a "mindset of growth?"  Those might be good ways to look at repentance, the changed mind, but I think the perfect way to see sanctification is through love.  

The scriptures say, "This is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith" (1 John 5:3-4 NIV).

God says that love is, in definition: keeping his commands.  This is the whole formula put extremely succinctly.  Love is keeping God's commands.  His commands aren't super-difficult either.  Why?  Because we have been reborn in God's family, meaning the power of God working in us makes this possible (the Holy Spirit's work).  Finally, the victories in the process of sanctification, of growing holiness, are made possible due to our faith in Jesus.  Without faith, there is no hope of any change.  But what are God's commands?

Jesus reduced it to these two: Love God completely, with everything you have, and Love Others with a full heart (Mark 12:30-31 ESV).

So in a mindset of love, we also are growing in holiness. We're learning to sin less and less, because love does not sin against his neighbor or God.  We're learning to be holy, because love is intrinsic to holiness. 

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.
1 John 3:9

We might be tempted to think, yeah, love is great, I'm going to love and then just skip to something else.  Love is not necessarily an easy thing to do.  We may want to slow down and spend some time trying to comprehend what love means.  

I know in my personal walk with God, I feel an aching in me, that I don't really have enough love for God and for others.  I tend toward selfishness a lot of the time.  I tend to move through life with a good amount of brokenness, resentment, and even coldness.  Especially when I get busy and I'm tired or sick, which is often, I tend to be cold toward others, disconnected, and resentful.  By the end of the day I may feel hollowed out, and hurt by the worries of the day.  By night it may seem like absolutely no love endures within me.  So I pray about it a great deal.  Let's not just pass over the idea of love.  Let's look at what love means, and how we incorporate an attitude of love in our daily actions.  Love is this:

"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends."  -1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV

Let us program into our mindset of salvation an attitude of patience, kindness, humility, and rejoicing in truth.  Let us radically bear difficulties, let us radically believe in God's provision, let us radically hope for the future eternal life, and let us radically endure all manner of persecutions and wrong-doings.  Let us carry in our minds an eternal state of love. 

3. Mindset of Service.

Matthew 20:25-28 (ESV) But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  

This scripture indicates a situation where two of Jesus' followers were arguing over who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God. 

When it says "Gentiles" that word simply means non-Jews.  Gentiles are you and me, unless you're reading from Israel.  And isn't that the truth?  The Gentiles lord it over their people.  In America that is the certainly the case, a ruling elite tend to control the country while the American people are generally held helpless, voting for one of two parties run by the same elite oligarchy.  You could also see this in the context of church government in the Roman Catholic church.  The entire organization is run by one man, a Pope, who can even issue dictates that may contradict scripture, because he is considered God's representative on Earth.  Even in many mega-churches in the United States you see the attitude of "lording it over" the "little people" like you and me.  One could think of the Mark Driscoll situation at the Mars Hill church network.  A group of something like 13 different former pastors wrote a letter of complaint to the church board, indicating an autocratic rule and an environment of abuse toward contrary opinions.  That's lording it over the gentiles.  We are called to quite the opposite.  How can we live it?

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." -James 1:27 ESV

Service is just another way for saying that we bear good fruit.  There are so many applications to the idea of bearing fruit.  During one of my last classes at Liberty University we looked at this idea of practical ministry.  The book for the class was called Reforming Mercy Ministry by Ted Rivera, I highly recommend it.  Rivera looks at 33 ways to practically engage in service to others.   

Service, bear fruit, is inexorably linked to showing mercy.  Are we merciful to others?  Do we offer forgiveness abundantly?  Or do we harbor all kinds of resentments from years past?  God requires us to be merciful.  

I'll share two example from my own life.  The first is from about ten years ago when I was caught shoplifting at a grocery store in Kiel, WI.  Obviously not one of my best moments.  It was before I became a Christian of course.  I was caught.  I started crying, and begging the store manager for mercy.  He refused, and called the police.  I kept repeating, "Do you believe in God?  Please forgive me, I'm sorry!"  Then an old woman, looked like an old Catholic lady walked past during this twisted scene and stared at me coldly and said, "Damn you!"  Then she walked away.  The police officer arrived and rescued me from this twisted scene.  Of course I've long repented of that behavior and made my amends to those I harmed.  But its amazing how beautiful mercy is, and how ugly condemnation can be.  

Secondly, I've had my issues with those in the church.  One could say I had a certain nemesis, who did all he could to cause problems for me in the church.  I felt deeply harmed by this individual.  He said some things about me.  He got into leadership and did what he could to freeze me out of leadership positions.  He took my ideas and used them for his own.  He did things that really hit issues of trust from my past, when my parents divorced, and issues with being picked on, like I was picked on in public school.  But, the point is, I have prayed for this person.  I have forgiven this person in my heart.  I have had to fight for that forgiveness, because of the hot emotions attached to that situation.  But forgiveness has come.  We must fight for that attitude of service and merciful forgiveness.  

The mindset of service is certainly extremely practical made up of prayer, sharing the gospel, serving in a food pantry, handing out bibles, helping people with home repairs, teaching, being a greeter at church, writing a blog, sharing scripture on social media, and hundreds of other possible applications.  But it's also an attitude of the mind.  It's a mindset of showing mercy.  It's a mindset of general humility.  We don't jaunt around like we're better than the people we serve.  We meet them at equal standing.  We're all equal under God.  We don't hide all of our ugly stories from the past.  After all, wasn't it the man who captained a slave ship the man who wrote, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me?"  We share authentically.  We don't worry about appearances when we can show people that God's grace is for those who have done terrible things.  The mindset of service is one of love, the showing of mercy, offering forgiveness, and of course meeting the needs of others.  Through service we bear fruit in keeping with repentance, and abide forever in Jesus Christ our savior.  

In conclusion, when we're first reborn into the family of Christ we have a lot of growing to do.  Eventually after several years we begin to come into maturity.  Inevitably over the years we'll continue to grow into new states of maturity.  One of the first stages of growth and maturity is that of understanding the tri-fold mindset of grace through faith, growth in love, and merciful service to others.  The attitude of assured salvation in Jesus Christ, grace, must be paramount, followed by growth in holiness, and merciful service to others.  All three of these mind-states must be overflowing with love, love, and more love.  Love is the perfection of all these states of mind and action.  Therefore, let love flow from you at all times: love for your God, love for your family, love for society, love for God's creation, love for those in your view daily, and love for those who have done terrible things to you. 

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.1 John 4:9-10 ESV


Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 1 John 4:7 ESV

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8 ESV

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13 ESV 

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