Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Grace, Backward and Forward

It’s easy to think of grace as something that fell to earth at the cross – a new concept for the new covenant, not available to anyone who lived before Christ. But there’s plenty in the Old Testament that makes no sense apart from grace. If we have an unchanging God, then grace – his offer of redemption toward us who deserve only condemnation – is as eternal as any other part of His character.

The book of Leviticus records the system of animal sacrifice in the temple, a practice commanded by God that continued even past the death of Jesus. And yet multiple times, in the Old Testament and the New, God said through the Bible’s authors that the people’s sacrifices did not please Him, that they could not take away sin:

  • “‘The multitude of your sacrifices–what are they to me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.'” – Isaiah 1:11
  • “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” – Hebrews 10:11

What? If all this is so, then before the cross, where was the true covering for sin?

The ancient Hebrews lived under the law, but grace was just behind the veil. By His grace God declared the temple sacrifices acceptable and sufficient – if the hearts of those making the offerings were right. Their obedience had to be sincere, their repentance authentic. That is all grace demands for us to enter into it. It’s all we can bring. The blood sacrifices in the temple and the Passover feast were acts of obedience that pointed forward in anticipation to God’s ultimate manifestation of grace.

A word about blood, because some might conclude that God and His followers have a ghoulish obsession with gore: Blood is bound up with life itself. In the body, it sustains life. Out of the body, it equates with death. Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death; therefore the spilling of blood to the point of death equates to the “payment” of those wages.

Unlike the temple sacrifices, the blood of Jesus didn’t have to be declared acceptable payment, like paper money substituting for silver or gold. By Jesus’ sacrifice God extended grace in a new and perfect way – the sinless One’s truly powerful blood, in place of the sinner’s blood. Since the cross, the exchange is now His blood for ours – no longer the blood of ordinary animals standing in for the blood of the Lamb of God.

We look backward now to the cross through communion, a kind of streamlined Passover meal. But we no longer need a substitute; the bread and wine are only tokens, symbols. The real, truly powerful sacrifice has been made, the completed expression of God’s grace.

What’s unchanged is what grace asks of us: sincere obedience, true repentance. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” If we invoke the name of Jesus with hearts that aren’t right in this way, it’s no better than the sacrifices offered in vain by rebellious Israel. Jesus warned in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Because in the long run, what we do will reveal what’s in our hearts.

(All verses are from the New International Version of the Bible.)


Straight Talk

“You say…love is a temple, love the higher law. You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl.” – “One” by U2

Like it or not, we are in the midst of a cultural and political shift on a par with the Civil Rights era. I’m not old enough to remembers those years, but any Christian who stood with God for justice should have seen the rightness of the cause.

This time around, homosexuals are at the center of the change. And many Christians, however firm their convictions may sound, are adrift. I am one of them, trying to drop an anchor somewhere.

If you’re a Christian and this subject hasn’t made you squirm, you may not have thought hard enough about it. No, I’m not talking about knee-jerk revulsion at relationships that make us uncomfortable. I’m talking about the knife edge we need to walk between upholding Biblical truth, and giving every person outside the faith room to come as they are.

Even as I try to strike a blow against hate, I know that based on the following paragraphs, some readers will mark me as a slave to ignorance and possibly a hatemonger, though I am no such thing. Christians need to bring a delicate balance of honesty, perspective and love to this discussion, and I believe most are missing it as the progression of gay rights accelerates.

Some Christians thunder judgment, fear and hate from pulpits, street corners or any handy soapbox. It’s un-Christian, un-Biblical and immeasurably damaging to the testimony of the church.

Others timidly surrender principles and honesty as they go with the flow – bowled over by the tide of history, fearful of being labeled a bigot, or perhaps giving voice to the tender spot in the heart that wants to believe mutual love between two people is always right.

I’d like to propose another way, taking the three key principles – honesty, perspective and love – one at a time.

Honesty first of all demands that we acknowledge what the Bible teaches. Accept or reject the Bible’s authority, but it’s a mighty stretch to find the Bible neutral on homosexuality, much less in favor of it. I’ve seen many attempts to do so, and they all seem to involve selective reading, wishful thinking or both. They appeal to a desire to be excused from wrestling with this issue.

But the sum of the Bible’s teaching is clear. It’s stated in the Old Testament, repeated in the New. If the Bible’s authority is from God, then the matter ought to be settled.

And so what?  I don’t mean to make light of what God forbids, but this is where perspective comes in. God has forbidden many things. If we as Christians struggle with what to say about homosexuality, the better question is why we feel compelled to say any more about it than we do about anything else God disapproves.

Sin is sin. We need to talk about sin, because it’s the chasm between God and everyone who hasn’t received His gift of redemption. But if we are reading the Bible correctly as to homosexuality, we can trust God to deal with it in the lives of those come to Him – just as He is dealing with everything the rest of us brought to our relationships with Him. The Christian’s job is to hold the door open.

That’s where the love comes in. The easy, trite thing to say is that we hate the sin but love the sinner. But we need to understand that homosexuals regard their orientation as part of their very identity. To say “we hate your homosexuality, but we love you,” reads to them as “we hate what you are, but we love you.” It sounds like self-contradicting nonsense.

It hardly matters whether homosexuals have a choice about what they are. They see it as their identity; for all practical purposes, it is, unless and until God changes it.

As for what the Christian’s attitude should be, consider the arc of Jesus’ life – from the angelic birth announcement to the shepherds, to the travels of His earthly ministry, to his dying promise to a dying thief. He went places where the religious leaders wouldn’t have defiled their sandals, seeking encounters with people who would never have found a place in the temple courts. He didn’t ask who was clean or unclean; he simply pursued those who needed Him. “All those the Father gives me will come to me,” he said, “and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37 NIV).

Perhaps we should learn the lesson of Peter, who got an earful about clean and unclean in a vision from God. When God set an un-kosher buffet before Peter and commanded him to eat, He was not abolishing every Old Testament command, but it was about much more than food. What came after the vision was not a shipment of shrimp. It was an invitation to a pagan home that no ceremonially clean Jew would dare enter.

If by clean you mean sinless, then no, gays are not clean. Neither are you, and neither am I, apart from God’s grace. Nor is anyone defined by just one sin. But as God made clear to Peter, under the new order established at the cross, all are approachable, all can be offered the same grace by which we are saved. We can’t approach anyone, however, if we are unbearable company.

When asked directly what we believe, we need to be honest (see above). But we need to realize that gays’ sense of injustice and desire for affirmation is from the heart, and their pain is real when they are attacked. Pain may eventually be unavoidable, but if so, let it be the sting of cleansing, not our words falling like fists on their heads. And never, ever, real fists.

What about law and culture? Please remember that we do not live in the God-ordained theocracy of ancient Israel. We live in a pluralistic, secular society that, for a time, fairly well represented Judeo-Christian values. That is slipping away, and it’s scary, and perhaps that’s why Christians get so agitated when another domino falls, as is happening now.

But at what cost do we try to recapture the fading shadow of our “Christian nation?” What is most important – individual souls or this abstraction we call our culture? In the supercharged atmosphere of the moment, almost every word spoken in the public square against gay marriage comes across as hate speech toward gays, whether it’s intended that way or not.  And in the age of social media, the public square is unimaginably large. After all they’ve seen and heard, how many gays will ever set foot in a church that presents the full Gospel?

The Bible tells us to submit to the civil authorities and pray for them. That doesn’t mean Christians have to celebrate the legalization of gay marriage, vote for the candidates who support it, or bless those unions with church weddings. But we would be wise to run every public word through that filter of honesty, perspective and love. I suspect far fewer words would come out of Christian mouths if all did this. We ought to restrain our speech not out of fear, but out of love for those who just might come to trust us, and so allow us to speak our hearts in private.

Speak our hearts about what? The Gospel. The rest is in God’s hands. If Christians have become the ogres in the gay marriage debate, maybe it’s because we forgot to put first things first.

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