No such ‘thing’ as grace

Sinclair Ferguson has a new book coming out soon, By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me. Can’t wait to read it. Whenever I think of grace I am reminded of his message on John 15 from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference in Grantham, PA. Sitting in a sweltering chapel listening to him preach for the first time in person my understanding of grace was shaped and I came to discover the depth and riches of our union with Christ. I’ll never forget when Ferguson said this:

“The union with Christ we have is not that we somehow share His grace. Because–follow me carefully–there actually is no ‘thing’ as grace. That actually is a Medieval Roman Catholic teaching, that there is a ‘thing’ called grace that can be separated from the person of Jesus Christ, something Jesus Christ won on the Cross, something He can bestow on you, and there are at least seven ways it can be bestowed on you and they all, as it happens, turn out to be in the hands of the church. And you can have this kind of grace, and this kind of grace, and this kind of grace …

There is no such ‘thing’ as grace! Grace is not some appendage to His being. Nor is it some substance that flows from us: ‘Let me give you grace.’ All there is is the Lord Jesus Himself. And so when Jesus speaks about us abiding in Him and He abiding in us–however mysterious it may be, mystical in that sense–it is a personal union. Do not let us fail to understand that, at the end of the day, actually Christianity is Christ because there isn’t anything else; there is no atonement that somehow can be detached from who the Lord Jesus is; there is no grace that can be attached to you transferred from Him. All there is is Christ and your soul.”

Dust

Last night I lay awake in bed unable to fall asleep as my active mind protested my tired body. So my mind wandered and wondered, eventually arriving at Psalm 103:13–14, two verses I have focused my attention upon these past two days. The following words came to my mind. I played them over in my head until sleep arrived—

Dust

I am collected dust
bound together for a time
into this mud
formed by liquid soul.

How often I forget this frame
and attempt to live as gold
or diamond
or granite.
Anything, everything, but collected dust.

But He never forgets.
He never forgets.
His tenderness speaks it so.

Tozer on the Gentleness of God

tss-pop-can-large.jpgA.W. Tozer writing on Psalm 18:35 (“your gentleness made me great”):

“God is easy to live with. Satan’s first attack upon the human race was his sly effort to destroy Eve’s confidence in the kindness of God. Unfortunately for her and for us he succeeded too well. From that day, men have had a false conception of God, and it is exactly this that has cut out from under them the ground of righteousness and driven them to reckless and destructive living.

Nothing twists and deforms the soul more than a low or unworthy conception of God. Certain sects, such as the Pharisees, while they held that God was stern and austere, yet managed to maintain a fairly high level of external morality; but their righteousness was only outward.

Instinctively we try to be like our God, and if He is conceived to be stern and exacting, so will we ourselves be. The truth is that God is the most winsome of all beings and His service one of unspeakable pleasure.

The fellowship of God is delightful beyond all telling. He communes with His redeemed ones in an easy, uninhibited fellowship that is restful and healing to the soul.

He remembers our frame and knows that we are dust. He may sometimes chasten us, it is true, but even this He does with a smile, the proud, tender smile of a Father who is bursting with pleasure over an imperfect but promising son who is coming every day to look more and more like the One whose child he is.”

— A.W. Tozer in The Root of the Righteous, pp. 13-16. As quoted in the newest Banner of Truth Magazine (issue 531; Dec. 2007).

Critical but gracious

tsslogo.jpgAdrian Warnock has an excellent post modeling how Mark Driscoll publicly pointed out theological error and the gracious and humble manner in which he did it. Very helpful.

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Related: Grace and the Adventure of Leadership message by C.J. Mahaney. Correction must be done in deep humility and thankfulness. The book of 1 Corinthians — where Paul is about to correct the great errors of the Corinthians — begins with these (almost unbelievable) words: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:4). “Paul was more aware of evidences of grace than areas in need of growth.” One of Mahaney’s most important messages and a must-listen for pastors.

Our holiness and zeal purchased in the Cross

tsslogo.jpgI’ll never forget the glorious day God opened my eyes to see that everything in the Christian life centers around the Cross. It was reminiscent of viewing the massive Rocky Mountains for the first time — having my breath taken away by the size and grandeur of their jagged features, snow-topped summits, and cloud-ripping peaks.

About four years after my conversion, I was preparing to deliver a short message on Titus 3:4-7. The intention was to study this passage to prepare an evangelistic message on a local college campus. The passage reads:

4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

God’s glorious grace saves us purely on the basis of His own mercy, apart from anything we could ever merit from Him. The works we do in ‘righteousness’ are nothing in His sight. We are redeemed in Christ alone, and we can be justified in Him alone. On the basis of the Cross and God’s grace alone, we can possess the hope of eternal life.

These glorious truths sounds pretty evangelistic. Well, kinda.

As an expositor I was trying to come to grips with this passage and the context (which did not seem evangelistic). These passages are embedded between a call for obedience before and a call for obedience after. Listen to the next verse: “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (v. 8).

Over the course of that week of study and meditation, God kindly revealed to me that the Cross is bigger than evangelism and conversion! Being reminded of the Cross is for “those who have believed.” From here God showed me the dangers of forgetting the Cross and how the Cross is central to the everyday life of the Christian, producing joy and earnest obedience.

As you can imagine, I was shocked and surprised at these discoveries. Preparation on the passage continued but within a new understanding of the Cross in the Christian life. I would later title the message, A Gospel Tract for Believers.

When I want to be amazed at the Cross, I return to Titus.

The Purchase of the Cross

Recently I was back in Titus, being amazed again. This time our gracious God opened my eyes to the beauty of the completed work of Christ on the Cross. Listen to Titus 2:11-14:

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

That final verse made my jaw drop because here Paul unfolds the purchase of Christ at the Cross. These are what Christ bought in His sacrificial death for sinners! We are told that Christ “gave Himself” in order to redeem and purify a people zealous for good works. In other words, our redemption, sanctification and even our zeal-ification were all purchased in the Cross!

1. Purchased holiness

Titus 2 seems to parallel Ephesians 5:25-26, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” Here is Christ purifying His Bride (the Church). This model for husbands in the spiritual leadership of their wives shows that our sanctification is not merely the fruit of hard work. Our sanctification is the fruit of Christ’s direct work.

Puritan John Owen recognized a pattern in the NT picture of sanctification, that our washing/sanctification is through blood (Heb. 9:13-14; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5). Not only at the beginning of the Christian life and in justification does blood cleanse us, but at all points of sanctification Christ’s blood sanctifies us. Which means the Cross is ever at the center of our sanctification.

And so in his commentary on Hebrews 2, Owen attacks those who believe holiness is attained merely by following the moral example of Christ. “And they who place this sanctification merely on the doctrine and example of Christ, besides that they consider not at all the design and scope of the place, so they reject the principal end and the most blessed effect of the death and blood-shedding of the Lord Jesus.”

Christ is certainly our example, but all of our moral purity is (most importantly) the purchase of Christ on the Cross!

I find it interesting that this theme of Christ purchasing our sanctification is not a major one in Owen’s works on mortification and indwelling sin, nor a major theme in Communion with God or the Glory of Christ. The theme does find prominence – of all places – in Owen’s classic defense of definite atonement in The Death of Death.

To show the atonement cannot have been achieved for all sinners, Owen argues the application of the atonement would also be applied to all. “So that our sanctification, with all other effects of free grace, are the immediate procurement of the death of Christ. And of the things that have been spoken this is the sum: Sanctification and holiness is the certain fruit and effect of the death of Christ in all them for whom he died.”

I know some of you will disagree with Owen’s overall argument on limited atonement. What I want you to see instead here is the precious wisdom Owen understands so well — that the work of the atonement reaches far beyond mere redemption and justification. Whoever Christ died for will be sanctified and will be holy because this sanctification and holiness has been purchased at the Cross.

Thus we can say with Paul, Christ is our righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ purchased it all.

2. Purchased zeal-ification

And not only our sanctification and mortification (death to sin), but all of our Christian zeal was also purchased in the Cross!

Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on Titus 2:14 and his overall point was to reveal that all genuine Christians are zealous people. At the beginning he says, “Zeal is an essential virtue of a Christian. This is evident from the text because in the text it is mentioned as what belongs to the description of a true Christian and part of his distinguishing character. Also because it’s mentioned as a virtue that Christ purchased for all his elect.”

Edwards understood that ministry zeal is not the product of our self-sustained efforts, nor the effect of getting ourselves emotionally pumped up before a sermon, or pep-talking a congregation into service and evangelism. Ultimately, all zeal in the Christian life is purchased at the Cross.

How sad is our tendency to separate the work of Christ on the Cross from our ministry zeal and faithfulness. I know I’m guilty here. Examples of this can be seen in contemporary writings. On 1 Thessalonians 2:19, one author writes:

“This is why, when Paul looks ahead to the future and asks, as well one might, what God will say on the last day, he holds up as his joy and crown, not the merits and death of Jesus, but the churches he has planted who remain faithful to the gospel. The path from initial faith to final resurrection (and resurrection we must remind ourselves, constitutes rescue, that is salvation, from death itself) lies through holy and faithful Spirit-led service, including suffering” (N.T. Wright, Fresh Perspective, 148).

This could not be further from the truth. Paul understood the faithful ministry zeal of churches to be the working out of a zeal Christ purchased at the Cross. The Cross will be forever the centerpiece of glory because without it there would be no ministry zeal, no successful church plants, no faithfulness to the message of the Cross. We must resist the temptation to disconnect the merits of Christ from our ministry zeal.

Without the Cross, there is no zeal.

Conclusions

1. Self-sufficiency abated. This understanding of our mortification, sanctification and zeal-ification protects us from self-sufficiency. Our sufficiency is from God (2 Cor. 3:5). Or to put it another way, our sufficiency is in God’s grace, by His Spirit, and through the work of His Son on the Cross.

2. Confidence engendered. Few things more encourage ministry zeal and the pursuit of sanctification than the knowledge that Christ already purchased these gifts of grace! We have the confidence to pursue and kill sin because we are being washed in His blood. We have the confidence to pray for fervent zeal because it’s a zeal already fully purchased by Christ.

3. Legalism killed. Legalism is seeking to appease God through personal obedience. At its heart is the awful idea that I bring to God something I’ve achieved in my own strength that pleases Him more than His Son. This legalism is killed when we reflect on the Cross of Christ, where He purchased all our holiness and zeal.

It sounds awkward, but the bottom line is that we are simply becoming what’s already been paid for. We should continue praying for holiness, sanctification, victory over indwelling sin, and that God would inflame our passions and zeal. But in these prayers we are merely asking that God would apply, by His Holy Spirit, what Christ has already purchased for us on the Cross.

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Related post: What is Legalism? (a very simple, working definition)

Related post: Cross-centered obedience (how the diligent pursuit of personal obedience presses us into the Cross and comforts our souls)

Why we must evangelize

tsslogo.jpgFrom time to time we like to feature parody on TSS.

But this is no joke.

Recently NavPress published a book titled I’m OK – You’re Not: The message we’re sending nonbelievers and why we should stop by John Shore. It was written by a humorist, but it’s not going in the “funny” folder.

The book’s purpose:

“Pretty much every last, single person in America has heard the word of God! The Great Commission has gone a very long way toward being completely fulfilled right here in our own backyard! …

So. Now what?

Well, the contention of this book is that now that it’s safe to assume that all of our neighbors already know the story of Christ and the Bible and so on, it might be a good time to take some of that enormous energy we currently spend on converting those same people, and to focus it instead on ‘just’ loving them as much as we love ourselves.

In other words, I think that here in the great, gospel-saturated U.S. of A., it’s time to shift our concentration from fulfilling the Great Commission to fulfilling the Great Commandment.

I do want to be clear about the caveat, though, of ‘only’ meaning that we should ease off trying to tell people about Christ who haven’t first asked us to tell them about Christ. If someone has indicated to us that they’re open to hearing the Good News, then by all means let us share until we’re hoarse (or until it’s clear they’d like us to go home so that they can go to bed). By extension, then, I’m also not in any way meaning to suggest that preachers should stop preaching, or that stadium-filling Billy Graham-style revival meetings should stop happening. Of course they shouldn’t. Because again: Those kinds of public or corporate affairs are presented to people who have asked to participate in them, who have willingly volunteered to hear the Word of God. Such people are fair game — and have at ‘em then, I say! Praise the Lord, and save me a front row seat” (pp. 14-15).

Wow.

I’m aware this quote probably reflects the sentiments of a broad stroke of American Christianity. So in no way am I singling this author out (he is merely a representation). But so many things come to mind after reading this, I hardly know where to begin. In part, this reveals an overly-optimistic view of our country’s understanding of the Cross, a market-driven evangelism outlook, a misunderstanding of human nature, and a deficient understanding of the Great Commission (as being limited to media saturation and evangelism). Quite obvious is the purposeful disconnect between service and persuasion. Where to begin?

Serving up persuasion

The truth is, our acts of obedience and kindness are used to ‘win’ unbelievers to Christ. “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Pet. 3:1-2). It’s okay to have evangelistic motives behind your obedience. We can (and should) love and serve our neighbors, motivated that God would use that service in some way to radically change them (as He has changed us!).

Cross-centered humility

And our evangelism must be done with humility. Certainly! But our humility comes from realizing that we are absolute failures before God. The Cross tells me I’m not okay with God and my neighbor is not okay with God either. The Gospel tells me (in myself) I am an absolute failure before God because of my sinfulness. Only in Christ do sinful failures have the hope of eternal life. So any pridefulness in Christian evangelism – which is what this book aims at stopping – is a derivative of misunderstanding of the Gospel itself.

If Christians act with belligerence in evangelism, and this reveals a lack of understanding in the Gospel, how misunderstood is the Gospel in the rest of “gospel-saturated U.S. of A”?

Ironically, the assumption of a widespread understanding of the Gospel affirms a superficial understanding of the Gospel, and this fuels pride in evangelism! This book unwittingly incubates what it sets out to cure.

We interrupt this program …

But enough about us, Christ is coming back in flames with a host of angels to “inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thes. 1:7-8). That’s news worthy of interruption.

Remember Paul’s conversion? God apparently did not feel restrained to await Paul’s permission before knocking the Gospel-despiser down blind into the dust (Acts 9:1-9). Even before his conversion, Paul heard the Gospel and knew why the message was dangerous to his self-righteous religion. He was out to stop the spread of the Gospel. God interrupted his program.

But what incredible grace was shown to Paul! How does Paul recall this event in his life? Does he say it was unfair for God to have dropped him in the dust like that? No. Does he reprimand God for not asking permission first? No! He says, “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13-14). The blinding interruption in Paul’s life was mercy and grace!

Conclusion

Paul soberly reminds us from his own testimony that knowing about the Gospel does not disqualify us from being “ignorant” of the Gospel. Which is why evangelism must continue — no matter how pervasive the Christian message seems on the outside, nor how oppressive the influence to “stop” comes from the inside.

Pursue, persuade, serve, and share. But do it all in the strength of the Spirit and the humility so fitting the message.