Reflections on Uganda Part 4 - Sanctifying Grace

“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

Hebrews 10:14

    Jackfruit is a sticky, juicy, fibrous fruit found practically everywhere in Uganda.  Ugandans love it.  I suppose, if given enough time, I might grow to love it too.  As it is, I politely eat it when it is served my way.  I’ve learned to recognize the pods of fruit when they are served on a plate.  More easily recognizable, though, is the jackfruit tree.  The tree is recognizable because the fruit is distinctive.  

    Jackfruit has a shape that is uniform in its non-uniformity.  I guess I would best describe the shape as that of a water balloon, sagging and drooping all around.  The exterior is a light green, with a rough, though not prickly, texture.  They often grow in clusters, and can be as big as a basketball.  I give you this description so that you will know one when you see one.  And when you see one on the tree, you will know the tree is a jackfruit tree.

    There is actually a Biblical point to all of this.  The Bible tells us you will know them by their fruit and that as Christians, we are to bear healthy fruit.  Over the course of our “red dirt road” conversation about Uganda (though really about us here in the US), we’ve spoken of the difference between knowing about Jesus, and truly knowing him.  One of the points I’ve tried to make throughout is that if we truly know him, that knowledge, by definition, transforms us.  With this transformation, there should be growing evidence of fruit in our lives.  

    So what is this fruit.  In part, it is to be found in a growing desire for God’s Word, a growing desire for prayer, and a growing desire to be with God’s children in the church of Jesus Christ.  Over and over again, while in Uganda, I not only spoke of this fruit bearing life…I witnessed it.  In the US, we take it for granted that we have easy access to Bibles.  We take it so for granted, that we make little use of the Bibles on our bookshelves.  For many Ugandans, they have no such luxury.  We have found that one of the greatest gifts, and one of the ones most often asked for, is a Bible in their own language.  

    In fact, my friend Jason made multiple trips to bookstores buying new Bibles for recent converts.  These people had experienced the life-altering grace of Jesus Christ, and they now had a desperate desire to grow in the knowledge of him.  Though they may not have had the words to identify their new desires, they were in fact experiencing a Holy Spirit driven desire to grow in Christlikeness.

    What about us?  What about you?  If someone were to examine the fruit in your life, what would it reveal about your heart?  I know that even as I ask this question, it can seem off-putting, particularly when all you’ve heard is about transforming and shame erasing grace.  So if my question is causing you to pause, let me reassure you that this same grace is also a sanctifying grace.  Let me explain the connection.

    For some of us, these beautiful truths I’ve been writing about are a refreshing reminder.  For some, this is radical news.  For all of us, something inside resists.  Why?  Well, maybe we think this is just too good to be true.  Maybe, the idea of justifying grace is so diametrically opposed to the message we hear in all of life, that we just can’t seem to rest.

    We live in a world that seems to be built upon an endless stream of IF-THEN propositions.  IF we study hard, THEN we will make good grades.  IF we go to the right school, THEN we will get a good job.  IF we are beautiful, smart, and athletic, THEN we will be worthy of a desirable spouse.  IF we eat our vegetables, THEN we will be healthy.  Do you see the innumerable ways this IF-THEN mindset impacts your life?

    Set against this message, the gospel of Jesus Christ says no to IF-THEN thinking and gives us another form of logic.  YOU ARE - SO BE.  In Christ, YOU ARE righteous - SO BE who he has already declared you to be.  In Christ, YOU ARE a beloved child of God - SO BE a child of God.  In Christ YOU ARE redeemed - SO BE that.

    The gospel truth here is that you don’t earn your status with God, so growth in the Christian life doesn’t change your grace given status.  Growth in the Christian life is a form of worship and is the natural outflow of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life.  This is sanctifying grace.  It is a lifelong process of growing in holiness, not to convince God that we are worthy, but because this is who he has already declared us to be.  

    Please don’t be put off by the question of fruit in your life.  It is an appropriate question.  Please also don’t be taken out by the struggles that you experience on a day to day basis.  There will be struggles in the Christian life.  Christian growth is not a straight-line growth path.  There are steps forward, and there will be steps back.  This is why we continue to depend on the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

    When I describe our church, I describe us as a people who have been transformed by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and who are being transformed by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I believe that is what Hebrews 10:14 points out when it says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”  Jesus has transformed us.  He has made us holy.  Jesus is still transforming us.  He is making us holy.  WE ARE - SO WE ARE BEING.

    Friend, you need to know this truth in your own life.  If you are in Christ, your status is secure, but you are still a work in progress.  Your life as a Christian is one of growth in holiness, for the glory of God.  So embrace, and rest in, the knowledge of transforming, shame erasing, and sanctifying grace.

A Life Giving Rhythm

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Hebrews 10:24-25

    The other night, between my daughter’s dance practices, I decided to share with her some of my moves.  She wasn’t impressed.  I can’t really blame her.  I’ve always believed my enthusiasm could make up for whatever I lacked in natural rhythm.  Apparently not.

    Dejected, I went for an evening run.  There, I found my rhythm.  The beat, beat, beat of my movement down the street just felt….right.  I still couldn’t dance.  I still can’t clap to the beat.  But, on my run, something deep in me was reminded that my soul needs rhythm.  

    Maybe that is why music speaks to us.  We are hardwired for rhythm.  It is in our DNA, because we are created in the image of God, and He wove rhythms into the structure of creation.  Work/Rest….Work/Worship.  There, in His design for the week, He has established for us a holy rhythm.  Yes, all of life is to be worship, but He has set apart the Sabbath to be a special day of worship.  When we abandon His rhythm, our lives can quickly get off beat.

    There is more to this rhythm than merely individual work and individual worship, though.  It is a rhythm of work, and corporate worship.  We worship together, as the people of God, because God has ordained us to live, and worship, in communion with one another.  And in His Word, He tells us what our hearts know to be true…something is missing when we neglect to meet with one another.  Something is missing in the heart of the one who is not in worship.  Something is missing in the heart of the one worshipping, who does not have his brother or sister with him.  

    In Genesis 2:18, the Lord God made an astounding statement.  “It is not good that the man should be alone.”  If you connect that statement with God’s mandate for man to work and keep the garden (which I do), and if you connect that mandate to God’s ultimate call for man to worship (which I do), you begin to see that man cannot worship alone.  

    I pull all of this together to point out that God has blessed man with a calling to worship together, with the people of God, and that He has woven into the fabric of our lives a weekly rhythm of work and corporate worship.  This rhythm is life giving.  It feeds our souls.  Through it, we receive the blessing of God.

    Friends, I want to encourage you, particularly as we enter in to the summer months…do not forsake weekly worship with the people of God.  Do not miss out on this divine rhythm.  Please know that I do not write to heap guilt and shame.  Shame comes from Satan.  It does not come from the Lord, as He so clearly reminds us in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  

    We are not keeping attendance rolls.  We are not making a list and checking it twice.  We/I merely want the blessing for you.  I also want this blessing for your church family.  We miss you when you are not here, because our family is not whole.

    There are a multitude of really good reasons to miss worship on Sunday.  Those are fine.  Do not feel pressured.  But, know the difference between those good reasons, and simply skipping the beat.  After all, there really is something beautiful that happens when we find our rhythm.

Barabbas and Me

    A substitute is one who takes the place of another.  The substitute may fulfill another person’s job duties, or take their place in a meeting, or game, or project.  Normally, we search for a substitute who possesses a similar skill set or list of qualifications.  On Good Friday, those similarities were thrown out the window when the perfect Substitute took on a different kind of role.

    Sensing the petty jealousy which motivated Jesus’ accusers, Pontius Pilate presented the people with a decision which was sure to reveal their hearts.  As the Roman governor overseeing Jerusalem, it was his tradition to release a prisoner during the Passover Feast.  Maybe this release was meant to be an illustration of Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt.  Maybe it was just a way for Pilate to gain popularity with the people.  Regardless, on that day he set up a striking contrast.  Pilate presented two potential candidates for release: Jesus and Barabbas.

    Barabbas was a notorious prisoner, an insurrectionist, a murder, and a robber.  He was a nasty guy, and Pilate presented him right alongside of Jesus.  In contrast to Barabbas, Scripture tells us that Jesus was perfect in every way.  A choice was to be made.  One of these men would die.  If fairness was the measure, Barabbas would have no hope.  But God had a plan, so Barabbas went free.

    Do you see what took place in this mini-drama which unfolded on Good Friday?  Barabbas deserved to die for his crime, yet Jesus stood in his place.  Jesus served as a substitute, taking on a punishment he did not deserve, and in doing so, a guilty sinner was set free.  While the story of Barabbas doesn’t take up a lot of space on the page, it is found in all four gospel accounts.  Why?  I believe it is because this little episode, gives us one of the clearest pictures of the gospel of atoning grace…the innocent became the substitute for the guilty.

    There is a temptation in this story to focus all of our attention on the crowds who chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus.  My attention can quickly go there because I find it very easy, and very satisfying, to see in myself a sense of moral superior and look down on others.  But then I read the story again, and the realization hits me:  Barabbas is me.

    In our enlightened world, we are quick to separate ourselves from the really bad people.  We have a hard time making this connection with Barabbas.  Resist this urge, because Barabbas is also you.  

    Don’t believe me?  When I was a child, I remember having a fear that others could somehow read my thoughts.  That thought terrified me, because I knew (and still know) how bad my thought life can be.  What would you think if others could read your thought life?  What if they knew your deepest, darkest secrets?  Would you still have a hard time seeing yourself as Barabbas?

    The point is, Jesus can read our thought life, and it didn’t scare him away.  He came knowing that our hearts look a lot like Barabbas’, and because of that, like Barabbas, we too need a substitute.  Praise the Lord that fairness had no place in this equation.  Through Jesus, God does not treat us fairly.  Through Jesus, God treats us graciously.  As Ephesians 2:8 tells us “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”  

    That grace is a gift which was secured on Good Friday when Jesus stepped in as a substitute, taking all of the wrath of God for the sins of those who would place their trust in him.  This Good Friday, as you consider Jesus on the cross, read the story of Barrabus (Matt 27:15-26, Mark 15: 6-15, Luke 23:18-25, John 18:39-40) and know that we are him.  As that realization hits you too, I encourage you to join me in praising the Lord for our perfect Substitute!  

A Savior Who Enters In

    The differences between little boys and little girls can be profound.  When my children were little, we had many sleepless nights.  When the boys couldn't sleep, they would come running in to our bedroom to tell us what was wrong.  It was different with my daughter.  When she couldn’t sleep, she would lay down in the hallway and cry out for daddy.  You see, when my daughter was hurting, or scared, or confused, she needed me to come to her.

    Isn’t it really the same for us?  In our deepest moments of need, we want our help to come to us?  Girl or boy, woman or man, when we are at our lowest (or really even at our best), we need Jesus to come to us?  Whether we are comfortable admitting it or not, it is true.  And that is one of the most beautiful truths of the incarnation…that God became a man, and in doing so, he came to us.  John 1:14 is a passage that beautifully captures this truth.  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  

    This is a passage that we will often read during the Christmas season to capture the truth of Jesus’ coming.  The year however, I find it to be entirely appropriate as we come to the beginning of Easter Week, and more specifically to Palm Sunday.  On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the Triumphal Entry.  We often think about this passage in terms of celebration.  We will commemorate it by having little children wave palm branches.  

    It is all a joyous time, as it should be.  But this year, as I approach the Easter Week, I am most struck by the reminder that Jesus entered in, knowing all that it would cost him.  He entered in to the messiness.  He came to the crowds who were confused as to his true identity.  They all wanted something from him, even if they didn’t know what they truly needed.  And yet he came…to us.

    It’s true, you know.  When we are hurting, when we are scared, when we are confused, it is better for our help to come to us.  Many years ago, on Palm Sunday, Jesus took one step closer, knowing all that it would cost him.  This Palm Sunday, I encourage you to rest in, and be comforted by, this truth: He still enters in. 

Entrust to Faithful Men - An open letter to the Christ Church Elder Candidates (and members)

“And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

2 Timothy 2:2

Dear Elder Candidates,

    In 2 Timothy 2:2, the Apostle Paul is writing to his true child in the faith, Timothy, directing him in the way he is to shepherd the church.  There, he lovingly encourages Timothy to be strengthened by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and then he shares with Timothy a profound instruction…entrust this gospel…this mystery of grace…this responsibility for the bride of Christ…entrust it to faithful men.  This is exactly what we are doing when we ordain and install new elders for Christ Church: entrusting her care to faithful men.

    As an elder, you have been called by God to serve as a shepherd for His sheep, and as a steward of His church.  This is not a board you will serve on.  It is a calling that has been placed on your life by God.  It is a weighty calling.  It is a glorious calling.  But the glory will never be yours.  The glory will always belong to Jesus.  With that in mind, there are several things you need to know.

YOUR GIFTEDNESS WON’T BE ENOUGH

    My brother, your church family has nominated you for this calling. They may have done so because they saw certain gifts in you, and while you will need every one of those gifts in your work as an elder, those gifts will never be enough.  You see, you have been called to a supernatural work.  If you merely rely on your own giftedness, you may indeed accomplish some good, but you will always be limited.  You need more than your giftedness.  You need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  So be men of prayer.

YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS WON’T BE ENOUGH  

    You are joining a group of elders who have gone before you, everyone of whom need the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  So do you.  On your best day, you will struggle with the lingering presence of sin.  On your good days, you will give in to sin.  Everyday, you will remain utterly dependent upon the grace of Jesus.

    Your people will need you to know this.  Your people will need you to live in humble, daily dependence upon the Savior.  Your people will need you to be a lead repenter, daily dying to self so that you can daily grow in living for Christ.  Your people will need you to know that Christ is the only good in you.  So be men of grace, humbly walking with your Savior, remaining ever present at the foot of the cross.

YOUR POWERS OF REASON WON’T BE ENOUGH

    The work of a shepherd is messy.  You life is messy, and your people’s lives are messy.  They will need you, mess and all, to engage in the messiness.  Popular Christianity has sought to sanitize the life of faith.  Popular churches often times will turn a blind eye to the mess, but Jesus always entered him.  The Good Shepherd did not run from conflict.  He entered in to the messiness of people’s lives, with grace and truth, seeking reconciliation and redemption. 

    You can not stand at a distance and reason your way through people’s lives.  You must engage.  You must embrace.  You must love well.  So be men of courage, and grace.

GOD WILL BE GLORIFIED THROUGH YOU

    God has called you to this work, but you are not enough, nor will you ever be enough.  Not only is that ok, it is beautiful.  Don’t you see?  Jesus tells us in His Word, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)  Few areas of your life will expose your weakness more than your work as an elder.  Yet at the same time, few areas of your life will bring more glory to God.  So rejoice.  Give it your all.  Serve well.  Love well, and know that if you are trusting in Christ, He will be glorified.  This is His church, not mine, or yours.  So be men devoted to Christ and His glory, above all else.


    My brothers, I am thrilled to serve Jesus’ church, and Jesus’ people alongside of you.  I am praying for you, as I pray for myself, that we indeed would be faithful men, sharing in suffering as good soldiers of Christ Jesus.  I pray the Lord would bless you, and His people through you, as He continues to bless His Church.

Peace!                         

James

Shaping Influences

Which is it?  Nature or nurture?  Which has the greatest shaping influence in our lives?  Psychologists line up on both sides of the debate, with some arguing in favor of genetic makeup, while others lean towards our family and cultural environment.  Interestingly, the Bible has something to say in all of this.

            Scripture tells us that we are either in Adam, or we are in Christ. (Rom 5:12-21).  One is a nature dominated by sin (Adam).  One is a nature dominated by the Spirit (Christ), and as Romans 8:6 puts it, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”  So is the Word telling us to force ourselves to focus our thinking on the ways of the Spirit?  Not quite.  As Jesus rather bluntly told Nicodemus in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  This rebirth that Jesus speaks of is not something we can do ourselves.  It is wholly dependent upon the gracious work of God’s Spirit (Ezek 36:26).  So Biblically speaking, “nature” is the dominate influence in person’s life, as it leads to and makes possible a life of faith.

            But does that mean the Bible views “nurture” as unimportant?  Far from it!  In fact, our environmental influences are tremendously important in our Christian growth.  They help shape us as followers of Christ.  So what are the shaping influences in your life?  Whether you know it or not, we are all being shaped…so let me offer some guidance on where to turn.

            One of the predominate shaping influences in the Christian life is the public and private ministry of the Word.  In John 17:17, Jesus prayed for His disciples, and for us, that God would sanctify us in His Word, proclaiming that His Word is truth.  This ministry of the Word refers to our private devotional life, but it speaks to more than that.  It includes the public ministry of the Word.  That means preaching.

            As a preacher, that brings me a measure of concern, and encouragement.  I am reminded of the weightiness of preaching, because I am not merely speaking my mind…I am proclaiming the Word of the Living God (1 Thess 2:13), and I am deeply aware of the warnings in Scripture directed towards teachers of the Word.  Yet at the same time, I find great comfort.  It is not my word that shapes you, but God’s Word.

            The Bible tells me these truths, but my experience confirms them.  It is evident for all to see that we are shaped by the LONG TERM ministry of the Word.  As we sit under preaching that is faithful to the Word, that is God-glorifying, Christ-centered, and gospel-driven…we can’t help but be shaped.  And that shaping takes place in ways small and large.  It takes place week by week and year by year.  So I ask you again, what are the shaping influences in your life?  Is the public ministry of the Word one of them?  If so, is that public ministry of the Word a ministry that is focused on the glory of God, or the glory of man?

            Brothers and sisters, the answer to the nature versus nurture question is BOTH.  We must have a new nature.  We must be born again.  With that new nature, we then have the joyful blessing of being shaped by God into something beautiful, and lasting.  Whether you know it or not…whether you like it or not…you ARE being shaped.  Pay attention to those influences in your life, so that over time your shape looks more and more like Jesus.

The Subversive Gospel

    I will confess that I want to be liked.  It is a character flaw which has a tendency of getting in the way of my calling.  That character flaw can be even more dangerous when it comes into contact with someone who wants to be affirmed.  You see, there is a danger of you and I setting up a relationship that is unhealthy for both of us.  I want to be liked.  You want to be affirmed.  If I as pastor merely affirm you, you will like me…and we will both remain unchanged.

    The unchanging nature of this unholy relationship seems to stand in stark contrast to the descriptions of the Christian life found in Scripture.  As I read the Bible, I begin to notice words and phrases like “transformation,” “new creation,” “crucified with Christ,” and “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  These phrases don’t seem to affirm our co-dependent relationship of affirming and being liked, but the Bible does associate those phrases, and many more, with another word…the gospel.

    “Gospel” means good news, but the Biblical definition of good news has little connection with my desire to be liked and your desire for affirmation.  Instead, it refers to being loved in spite of (those character flaws).  Instead of being affirmed (in our former ways) it declares us to be someone entirely new.

    So what about those character flaws…my desire to be liked and your need to be affirmed?  The Bible calls them sin.  I know.  I know.  I’m in danger busting up our cozy little relationship.  It scares me too, but let’s try and go there together.  What is this “sin” word?  The Bible teaches us that sin is all of the things that we think, do, or say which are not in line with the character and desires of God.  But that’s not all.  Sin also includes the many ways that we don’t think, do, or say the things which are in line with the character and desires of God.

    With that definition, I hope we can both see that we both qualify as sinners.  The good news in all of this is that God knows we are sinners, and that He has done something about it.  He made a provision for sin by sending Jesus to take our sin upon Himself.  In exchange, He has given us His righteous perfection.  In other words, He tenderly enters into the midst of our messiness and loves us with a transforming love.  

    So why do we keep up this game of affirmation and being liked?  I wish I had a quick answer for you, but we both know its not that simple.  The Bible is honest though.  Even among the apostles we see that Christian growth is a lifelong process.  The Bible tells us that through faith, Jesus declares us righteous by giving us His righteousness.  The lifelong process is this:  the Holy Spirit works in us to help us grow into what Jesus has already declared us to be.  It also tells us that in the process of Christian growth, the only hope I have for release from my sin is to call it what it is…sin. (1 John 1:9)  So, through the gospel, I know that in Christ I am a new creation, and though the old sinful desire still resides in me, that sinful desire no longer defines me (Romans 7:22-25).  I also know the same is true for you, if you have come to a saving faith in Christ Jesus (Romans 10:9-10).

    If all of this is true…and it absolutely is…then shouldn’t we agree on a different kind of relationship?  Rather than a relationship defined by affirmation and a desire to be liked, let’s have a relationship rooted in the love of Christ.  Instead of settling for being liked, I would rather find my identity in Christ and be loved by Him…all the while loving you by telling you truth instead of needing from you.  Instead of wanting to be affirmed as you are, wouldn’t you rather be loved in spite of who you are, and be transformed more and more into the image of Christ.  Instead of being offended by the mention of sin in our lives, shouldn’t we both desire to identify that sin, so we can be released from it.  After all, shouldn’t the church be the people with whom we can be the most honest?  I think so.  So why don’t we start being honest with Jesus, and with each other?  After all, he’s already proven His love for both of us.

    And one last thing.  I’m sorry about the big word in the title, but I really can’t think of a better one.  The word subversive refers to a systematic attempt to overthrow or overturn.  That’s exactly what the gospel is…a systematic attempt to overthrow or overturn our selfish desires, and to give us a better desire…a desire for Jesus and new life in Him.  Jesus secured that life through His death on the cross, and He will settle for nothing less than our death to anything lesser than life in Him.