Is the Christian a Saint or Sinner?

Crowned

Every Christian continues to endure temptation and sinful desires… sometimes victoriously, and sometimes we indulge our sinful nature. How should we make sense of this?

Sometimes we can get the impression that once we become Christians our lives are immediately characterized by holiness and purity. But that’s just not the case. Sometimes, yes, the Lord graciously frees us from crushing temptations or addictions; but most Christians experience a more gradual and subtle growth in holiness.

I know some people who have seriously struggled with the question, “Am I really a Christian?” because of their lingering struggles with specific temptations (usually sexual ones). With this in mind, I believe Martin Luther’s theology of Christian identity as “Simultaneously Saint and Sinner” is extremely helpful. Continue reading

What Jesus Meant by Entering the Kingdom as Children

Boy with Bible Laughing

I am convinced one of the most misunderstood Bible passages is where Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4) Why would Jesus say we need to enter the kingdom of heaven as children?

I’ve heard many explanations about how children are obedient and respectful, and so we should be the same way towards God. At the risk of sounding like a terrible parent, this simply isn’t how I’d describe my parenting experience. Being a father is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Sometimes it’s downright painful. Kids have a way of knowing they’re not in control but they keep grasping for authority.

Don’t we do that same thing to God? We know we aren’t in control, but we grab every opportunity whenever a window cracks open to exert our authority and try to grab control over life. Like the child who wants a suitable explanation for every decision, we keep asking God, “Why? Why? Why?” And if his answers are unacceptable (or if he simply says, “Because I said so.”) then we stomp our feet and look for someone else to tell us what we want to hear.

We don’t enter the kingdom of heaven as children because we have become so gentle and obedient. We enter as children because of our Heavenly Father. To boil it down is this: Christians have been adopted as children of God. This is why Jesus said you must be like a child to enter the kingdom.

When the disciples tried to keep the children from coming to Jesus, I am convinced that Jesus was urging his disciples to remember their status as disciples had nothing to do with their own importance. The disciples believed they were more important than those kids. But Jesus rebuked them and set them straight. Only those who are children of God will enter the Kingdom of God. It depends on their relationship with the Father, not because of their own value.

Remember, in the ancient world, children had barely any status – their value and importance came from their daddy. The good news of the gospel is this, “But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Those who lay down their status and declare their only entrance into heaven comes from Jesus Christ their Savior (remember, the end of Mt. 17 emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God)… those are the people who will be given entrance. Salvation isn’t a result of works, it is a gift of grace because you have been adopted as a child of God (Eph 2:8-10).

So next time you hear someone talking about how Jesus wants us to be gentle and cuddly little kids, you can smile to yourself and say, “Yes, we should be that too. But we aren’t. In fact, lots of times we’re pretty disrespectful children. Praise be to God that he’s a gracious Father!”

What’s the Difference Between Grace and Mercy?

The Bible is full of references to grace and mercy, and yet many Christians can attend church for years without being able to give a clear and simple explanation of the difference.

To put it simply, the difference is this: Mercy is “not receiving something you deserve” while Grace is “receiving something you don’t deserve.” We see mercy in action when we get pulled over for driving too fast but receive a verbal warning instead of a hefty fine. Similarly, grace is at work and on display when a victim’s family forgives the man who murdered their son or daughter.

Mercy is an expression of grace, but they are not the same thing. Here are a few examples from Scripture and what they have to do with the gospel.

Standing with Bible Continue reading

Why Can’t God Overlook Sin?

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23

The paycheck of sin is death. That is what we’ve earned. And yet, many of us struggle with the teaching that momentary sins would receive eternal death – it seems awfully extreme. It is a common question: “If God is love, why can’t God overlook sin?”

  • Johnny has disobeyed his parents all day long but expects to get rewarded with ice cream at the end of the day.
  • Suzie is hoping for a pay raise or promotion at her next review, even though she routinely ignores her boss’ instructions and does things her own way instead.
  • Bill doesn’t understand why he failed his math exam. After all, he recently discovered a whole new way of doing math that’s better than the “old way” of the past.

These simple examples reflect the justice and love of God. It would not be right or “good” for Johnny, Suzie, or for Bill to be rewarded. They have all disregarded human authority who has been rightly placed over them. And if it is good for us to receive appropriate discipline by human authority, why would God overlook our sin?

Forgiveness

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God is Not Fair

Fairness has become one of the gold-standards of American culture. Everyone is equal. For anyone to receive preference is akin to discrimination and will surely bring a lawsuit. In many ways, this is good and entirely appropriate for any free society.

Fairness doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing. It means you get what you deserve. This is our default theology. For those of us who are more melancholy, we live with guilt and gloom we cannot escape, because we have a more negative view of ourselves and the world. Others have a go-get-’em mentality and always see the positive side of things, and they live with the expectation that since they’ve never been arrested they’re all-good in God’s eyes.

But there are some ways in which fairness is unhealthy. Because love isn’t fair: it prefers the beloved over and above all others. I think my kids are cuter than your kids are. I’m sorry, but I just do. And I assume you think your kids are cuter than mine. Because that’s what love does. It’s not fair, but it’s good.

God is love. And God is not fair. But he is good, and he is just.

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Who Loves Self-Righteousness (hint: we all do)

Self Righteousness… does anyone like it? You know the type… those who walk around like they’re holier than thou, judging everyone else for not being as godly as they are.

And yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all love self-righteousness. We believe that we are better than others. If I think ABC is right, and you think ABC is wrong, then I’m probably not changing my mind anytime soon. Why is that? Because our default setting is self-righteousness. We are the kings and queens of our kingdoms, and what we desire is almost always viewed as good and right and beautiful. Those who oppose us are grabbing for power, judgmental, or they’re just plain wrong.

But here’s the thing… you can’t be a Christian and be self-righteous. Christianity looks to the righteousness of another. The gospel calls us to confess our unrighteousness and to trust fully in the righteousness of Christ. The Christian is fully dependent on Christ’s righteousness.

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Every Christian Has Baggage

In fact, not only does every Christian have baggage… every Christian NEEDS baggage! You simply cannot be a Christian if you are unaware of the skeletons in your closet. Maybe your baggage isn’t severe, you’ve never been to jail… but every Christian need to be aware of their own sin and great need for God.

Some people say that Christianity is only for the weak. They’re right! If you think you have your act together and that you don’t need to be forgiven, you don’t need mercy or grace, and you don’t need God’s strength to make you strong… then you may call yourself what you want, but you cannot truly be a Christian.

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If Grace is Sufficient…

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
2 Corinthians 12:9

The Christian life is not one of strength, but one of weakness. We are not called to live in a way that is seeking glory, but the the cross. To be broken and poured out, not to be exalted and lifted up. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35).

If we want to follow Jesus, then we will follow him to the cross. For in God’s economy, glory comes only through the cross. Jesus’ promise was never that he bore the cross in order that we might receive glory without suffering. No, the promise is that there is hope and future glorification for those who endure by faith.

Martin Luther talked a lot about being a “Theologian of the Cross” rather than a “Theology of Glory.” The article linked to above is helpful in fleshing that out in ways I don’t feel the need to repeat here.

If God’s grace is sufficient, then…

  • When I have nothing left to give, God will make my pitiful offering a valuable treasure.
  • I don’t need to “have it all together” in order to be used by God.
  • I don’t need to hide in shame over my sin and failures, because they have been redeemed and used by God to demonstrate his strength.
  • I have peace, because I can trust that God is the one who bears fruit, not me.
  • I am humbled… because God chose me despite my brokenness (not because I was worthy).

In life and in ministry there are times when we simply run out of strength to offer. It is in those seasons when being a Theologian of the Cross is of particular encouragement. My usefulness in ministry (preaching, teaching, counseling, mentoring, etc.) doesn’t come from my strength, but from God’s grace. And my faithfulness in leading my family (loving my wife and kids in a way that reflects God’s perfect love and leading my family in Scripture and prayer) are also an overflow of whether or not I am drawing from the well of grace, if I’m running on reserves, or if I’m totally dry.

I’m thankful for God’s grace. Without it I’d be useless… I’d remain the self-centered, impatient, snarky guy who thinks he’s got all the answers. When I remember God’s grace, the Holy Spirit pulls me out of myself and reminds me of the patience and mercy I’ve received – and He empowers me to give what I have received.

What difference does the sufficiency of grace (not just the “idea” of grace, but the reality that you have received it by God) make in your life?

Love Your Children Well

A friend of mine lost his three year old son this week. He went to sleep and simply never woke up. It is a tragedy beyond my understanding, and one I pray that I would never fully comprehend. As I pray for God’s comfort and peace and hope to surround my friend and his family, it’s only natural to feel a new layer of love for my children grow. 

I want my son and daughter not only to know that I love them. I want them to feel loved. While we should not live by our “feelings,” God gave them to us, and feelings are not inherently bad or shallow or trite. 

This is something I struggle with, because I’m not much of a “feeler.” Most people who know me know I’m not a particularly emotional person and that I tend to be fairly matter-of-fact. But with my family, it is one of my greatest prayers that they would not simply know that I love them… I pray that they would feel how much I love them. 

The greatest thing a parent can do for his/her children is to love them well.  
If my kids are well-behaved but don’t feel loved by me, then I have failed them. If my kids are ridiculously smart but they believe my love for them is conditional, depending on how well they are “performing,” then I have failed them. I could almost picture the Apostle Paul including this type of scenario into 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.

In the midst of discipline, does love reign?
As a Christian dad I do not have the “luxury” of neglecting to discipline my kids because it’s easier (in the short-term). Loving your kids doesn’t mean there is no “law” or that rules are absent. But it does mean that love is freely given despite my kids’ worthiness or unworthiness. Instead, I love my children unconditionally because I know I am loved by my Heavenly Father. Personally, I think I learn more about love when I’m in the throes of discipline than when I’m laughing with my kids – because that’s when I need to remember how uniquely God loves me. 

Questions I’ve been wrestling with over the past few days:

  • Do I discipline out of love and desire to see my children desire faithfulness to God, or out of a heavy-handed authority that demands law-abiding, rule-keeping children?
  • What if God treated me the way I sometimes treat my children? 
    That thought should terrify me…
  • What if I loved my children the way God loves me? 
    That thought should bring joy to my children…