Religion to Relationship

It is a common phrase among evangelicals to say that “Christianity is not about religion, but relationship”. I have probably said this a lot! It is said often to those outside of the church. I sympathize with the heart behind the statement. The intention behind the phrase is to communicate that Christianity is not about coldly following a bunch of rules (what we call “religion”); it is about you walking closely with God (“relationship”).

The phrase rightly communicates that Christianity is not a deistic religion, meaning, a religion that says God has long since peaced-out, leaving us and our world to run like clockwork as we obey the rules He left us. The phrase helps communicate that God is a personal God, involved in His creation, desirous to be in real, close, intimate relationship with us.

With that being said, I do not think this phrase rightly gets at how good the good news of Jesus really is. I think it can be helpful given a lot of explanation. For instance, “religion” is not necessarily a bad word. Also, “relationship” can simply equal obedience to God’s Law, which is not the gospel.

The good news of the Bible is not that God has thrown out His demands (“cold rules to follow”; what we call “religion”) and replaced them with a warmer, lighter expectation to just simply walk with Him in a personal relationship. Before you cry heresy, hear me out, I’m trying to give you really, really good news, from the Bible.

Let me cut to the heart of the matter by asking you a question. If Christianity is all about you walking in close relationship to God, how are you doing at that? Are you in prayerful connection with God “without ceasing” (see 1 Thess. 5:17)? Are you walking “humbly with your God” (see Micah 6:8)? Do you love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength (see Mark 12:30)?

Now, you may say “yes” to some of that and “no” to some of that. But, you may add, that God does not expect perfection from you. That’s religion! He just expects a relationship.

While that sounds better, it really isn’t at all. In this whole expectation of relationship God still demands perfection. Jesus never said, “Love God partially and imperfectly.” Jesus never said, “Be better.” Jesus said things like, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:30). Jesus said things like, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The question is, how are you doing with that?

To say that God has thrown away His old rules with the simple expectation that you would “just walk with Him” is not good news for me. I know just how far short I fall of the standard of “walk in close relationship with God”. I do not pray without ceasing, I do not love God with everything in me, and I do not walk humbly with God. In short, I am a sinner.

To tell a sinner, like me, or like you, that the good news is that you should just walk with God is simply saying the good news is that you would stop being a sinner. Righteous people walk with God in perfect love and trust; sinners, like you and me, don’t. So the answer is not, “walk with God”. That is my very problem! I fail at that every day! The shift from religion to relationship isn’t helping!

Well, the good news of the Bible is better than that. The good news is that Jesus, in your place, walked with God perfectly. He loved God with everything in Him, He prayed without ceasing, He walked humbly with His Father. In short, He was perfect. And He was perfect, as a man, to give you and me His record of righteousness.

God has not thrown away or lightened His demands. He has simply fulfilled them for you in Jesus Christ, who died for you and me, and who rose from the dead to be our very life.

Rest easy in God’s grace. Enjoy the peace God has made with you in Jesus. By faith, you are now friends; He calls you family.

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Am I a Legalist?

Wait, lega-what?

Concerning Christianity and the Bible, a legalist is someone who believes that their works will save them. On the one hand, a legalist may believe that he needs absolutely no grace from God and rests entirely in his own righteousness. On the other hand, a legalist may believe that he needs some added grace to complete his salvation; that could be like a 90/10 grace to works, or 10/90 grace to works, but either works, grace plus works equal salvation.

Collin, this sounds bad. Are you a legalist?

Well, yes and no. Theologically, I am not a legalist. Paul is clear in Gal. 2:16, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Paul says to those who add works of any kind to grace, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4).

That is some serious language, but if works are necessary for salvation, then Jesus did not need to come a die. But He did come and die, and His death is sufficient for our salvation. To add works is to say He and His cross are not enough for us. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).

While I am not theologically a legalist, practically I still remain one. I am an actual sinner. As a current, actual sinner, everyday I live with a flesh that still believes it can save itself. It believes if it wants to be righteous, it has all the resources it needs: itself. My sinful flesh does not believe in Jesus Christ for salvation. Like Paul “…I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:23).

This is why I have to pray like the father in Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!” God has made me alive by His Spirit and given me faith in Jesus, but everyday I feel the flesh so close, doubting His grace; a nagging sense is always close at hand, “Is Jesus really enough? Surely you can do it! You can pull it off!”

So I am a legalist, to my shame. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:24-25). “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13).

In Christ and because of Christ I am counted perfectly righteous and totally forgiven. All glory be to God.

 

 

Am I an Antinomian?

Wait, anti-what?

Good question.

The word antinomian literally means “against the law”. Martin Luther coined the phrase to describe people who believed God’s Law, or commands, had no function in our lives, at least not in our lives as Christians. The mentality of a true antinomian is essentially, “I can do whatever the heck I want to do with my life; all of my sin only serves to beckon more of God’s grace anyways!”

Collin, are you an antinomian?! 

Well, yes and no. I am not an antinomian theologically. I do not believe that now that I am a Christian God has ceased defining what is sin and what is not for me; His old, old Law still stands for me. I do not believe I should sin so that God will give me more grace. You and I ought to be perfect; we ought to love God perfectly and love our neighbors perfectly.

No, I am not an antinomian theologically. But I am an antinomian practically.

I believe God’s Law is amazing. The world would be much, much better if we all lived righteous lives loving God and neighbor. We would not have to lock our doors, we wouldn’t have to worry about getting ripped off, abortions clinics would close, and our marriages would rock. But none of us are righteous in ourselves. We do not fulfill God’s Law. I am against it all too often. I am still an actual sinner.

So, yes, I am still an antinomian, to my shame. While I am counted righteous in Jesus Christ and because of Jesus Christ alone, forgiven of all of my antinomian-ness, I am still, in myself, a miserable sinner with a flesh continually bent against God’s Law. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh…” (Rom. 7:18). Apparently Paul was an antinomian like this, like me, like you.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)Apparently Paul also hated this fact about himself. Someone theologically against antinomianism recognizes their own antinomian nature and tendencies.

So who will deliver us sad, sad antinomians?

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!…” (Rom. 7:25).

Abandon the Playground

I find it interesting that Christians are quick, very quick to voice caution against preaching grace. We fear taking it “too far”. We fear neglecting the subject of Christian growth, obedience, and transformation. Some may even go so far as to assume that those who talk about grace “too much” (evaluated by their opinions) do not like the topic of sanctification or do not think it needs to be talked about it.

While I think those assumptions are logically unwarranted, there may be something about them that is more concerning than just the inaccurate conclusions made. What may be more concerning is that caution is raised quickly in the face of grace-preaching, but caution seems to be raised more slowly (should I say much more slowly?) in the face of law-preaching.

As an example, in my experience I think I have heard far more about the fruit of receiving God’s grace than I have about the nature God’s grace. I have heard far more about all the things Christians are called to do than all the things Christ did for us. I have been cautioned against taking grace as a license to sin far more than I have been pleaded with to take grace as my only hope.

There seems to be far more tolerance for implicitly legalistic preaching than salvation-by-grace-alone preaching. There seems to be far more tolerance for preaching that turns the Christian life into itself, revolving around the Christian, than for preaching that makes Christ the center of the Christian life.

There seems to be far more tolerance for preaching that sounds like it is coming from a man who hates the people he is talking to, rather than someone who is “…like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). I expect to hear rants about preachers who primarily preach grace, but I do not expect rants about preaching that explicitly or implicitly teaches that we are saved and secured by our sanctification.

As Dane Ortlund says in his book Defiant Grace, maybe this is how it is (if I’m right) because “We are addicted to law.” We are addicted to “Conforming our lives to a moral framework” so that we can “cure that deep sense of inadequacy within.” Maybe it is because “Law feels safe; grace feels risky.”

He goes on, “It’s time to blow aside the hazy cloud of condemnation that hangs over us [and our churches] throughout the day with the strong wind of gospel grace….For many of us the time has come to abandon once and for all our play-it-safe, toe-dabbling Christianity and dive in.”

 

 

Gospel-Centered Guilt Trips

Among those who believe that we are not saved by works, but rather through faith in the finished work of Christ, there still sometimes seems to be a lingering weapon we use to motivate people.

Guilt.

Of course, this guilt-motivation we use is not some heretical teaching like: “You better do better or else God can’t save you.”

That would be preaching salvation by works, something completely antithetical to the Bible. The guilt-motivation I hear used, and I still use on myself, unfortunately, is more “gospel-centered” sounding.

Have you ever heard something like, “We are saved by grace, not by works! But watch out, if you do not bear fruit, you are not saved.” Now, it is true that faith in Jesus produces good works, and where there are absolutely no good works, we should be suspicious that there is faith. But I do not believe that means that (1) fruit saves us, or helps save us, and (2) we can perfectly detect fruit.

But the problem I see is that usually after the part about “…if you do not bear fruit, you are not saved”, there is nothing else said. Usually at that point the sermon, or thought, or book, or whatever, is done. The final word is essentially, “Make sure you bear fruit.”

Even the strongest believers among us can probably relate to the fear and confusion that can be struck in our hearts when that is the last word we hear. Our thought processing might go something like: “I think I bear fruit, but I mean, sometimes I do stupid stuff. Sometimes I sin, accidentally and on purpose. Am I bearing fruit?”

The thoughts continue: “It sounds like if I am not bearing fruit, or not enough fruit, I am not saved. And the answer for me seems to be, I better go and bear fruit.” Maybe our thoughts continue: “I don’t think I am bearing fruit. I am not saved. But I want to be saved. I want Jesus. I want to know Him.” And you end with a response to the final word you were given: “I need to go bear fruit to be saved!”

Sound bad? It should. Let me put it in an even more horrible sounding way, retaining the meaning: “I better go do something to save myself. Jesus’ blood apparently is not enough. Jesus’ blood needs to be supplement with my fruit.”

Let me quickly agree with you that I never hear that explicitly taught by Christians. They don’t even want to teach that. But I think it gets caught nonetheless.

The last word over the Christian should be the good news of grace, not an idea or word or hint that seems to imply that fruit saves us. You think Jesus came to die for sinners and on His way He taught stuff that made them believe they did not need His impending death? Seems odd.

For those who hear that faith in Jesus does produce good works, only to realize they can’t find any good works that show they have faith, the answer is not: “Go! Bear fruit and save yourself.”

The answer is, maybe for the first time, to admit you are unrighteous and rest in the righteousness of Christ for you. He died for you, and rose for you, so that you wouldn’t have to do anything; just believe. This actual, living faith in Jesus will produce fruit. Trust me. The Holy Spirit loves you too much to leave you where you are.

Self-Forgetfulness

I labor to preach and counsel that the message of Christianity is ultimately good news, not bad news. The good news of Christianity is that we are forgiven of all of our sin through faith in what Christ has done for us, not by what we do for God or ourselves. I also labor to help people understand that we do not just believe the gospel once, but daily live by faith in the gospel of grace. Growth in the Christian life, not just our justification, must revolve around Christ and His grace. We never move on from the gospel.

But I know myself somewhat, and I talk to others for a living, and I fear that I see a tendency in Christians to make our obedience our primary focus. Even those of us who “get” that obedience does not earn us anything from God are not above the temptation to make our Christian growth and obedience the “main event” of Christianity.

It is as if we treat the gospel as the stage in a theater. The stage is vital, because the show will not happen without it. But no one buys a ticket to see a stage. It is about the show that uses the stage as a foundation.

It is easy to treat the gospel like a stage. The real show is you. The gospel is the vital foundation, but you are supposed to move on. Your Christian life, walk, growth, sanctification, and all the wonderful things you will do for the kingdom is the glory for you to boast in and have others stand in awe of. We may not consciously think these thoughts, but we feel the pull to make sanctification revolve around us.

We make Christianity all about us. We are consumed with thoughts about our bad works and good works. We are constantly thinking about what we are doing wrong and what we are doing right, rather than ultimately boasting in what Jesus did right for us.

While our sanctification does concern our growth, we have to understand that Christianity is not all about your growth. And true growth is realizing that more and more. Our primary focus is Jesus, His perfection, His death, and His resurrection. May the gospel be our boast and our celebration, not us.

 

Beware of Licentious People! (Pt. 3/3)

I have addressed our natural skepticism that we have towards the radical grace of God, and especially those who talk a lot about grace. We often believe that those who talk a lot about grace devalue God’s law and devalue obedience in the Christian life.

Let me admit that I do believe there are people who use “grace” as an excuse to live sinful, rebellious lives. Jude 1:4 says, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed…ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

This idea of claiming grace as an excuse to live sinful lives is real. However, many, many church leaders and pastors make it seem like these people are running rampant in our churches. I don’t think they are.

When I was in college, I talked to hundreds of students on my university campus. I went to school in the heart of the Bible belt at the largest Baptist university in the world. If there was a place you would think students understood the gospel, it was there. But out of the hundreds of students I talked to over my years there, I can probably count on two hands how many understood the grace of God.

Many of them seemed to live unrepentant lives, and they claimed to be Christians. But they did not seem to be using grace as a license to sin. They didn’t even understand grace! Actually, they walked in rebellion because they felt secure in themselves, not in grace. Many thought they had done, or were doing what they should be doing to earn God’s acceptance. And yes, they believed in Jesus too! They were living by works + grace, not grace alone.

How do you use grace as a license to sin if you do not even understand it?

These students, and all these people we think are “using grace as a license to sin,” need to be told exactly what the grace of God is. Then, and only then, will we see if they use it as a license to sin.

We need to put to rest our fear of the licentious people. It seems many churches do not even preach the grace of God to produce those kinds of people! And this is what is so interesting, and infuriating: talk all you want about obedience, sanctification, growth, transformation, discipline, getting better, and killing sin, and hardly anyone, if anyone, will tell you to be careful, otherwise you will become a legalist and lose sight of God.

Yet this is the most clear and present danger! Christian or not, our natural tendency is to doubt grace, not believe it. We need more, much more preaching of the gospel of grace, the heart of the Bible, not less. Let’s not be scared, let’s be thrilled with what the Spirit will do when we preach the good news of Jesus!