Monday, February 19, 2018

An Atmosphere of Grace

Grace 6

Last week we discussed Peter's wondrous turn of phrase: "growing in grace". I likened it to a plant that grows in the soil, and we discussed briefly being rooted in Christ and established in the faith.

I want to return to Peter's primary thought today, and specifically to my illustration. If growing in grace is like a plant growing in soil, then to grow in grace I must live in an atmosphere of grace. Grace must surround me, it must fill my life.

How can I do that? If I will grow best as a Christian in an atmosphere of grace, how can I cultivate such an atmosphere?

497772384First, remind yourself constantly of first grace. Yes, it is the old, old story but never let it grow old. Visit Calvary in your mind constantly. Let your heart thrill when the doctrinal aspects of salvation such as atonement, justification, and adoption are sung about. Listen eagerly to people when they share their testimony. Share your own often. Regularly witness to others, and as you tell them of God's grace available to them, you will find it will amaze you all over again. Never, ever, ever get over first grace.

Second, keep your heart and mind always squarely focused on Jesus Christ. John tells us, And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. A few verses later he repeats himself. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. (John 1.14, 17)

There is something about Who Jesus is, and how He operates that defines, describes, and delineates grace. To encounter Christ is to encounter grace. To think of Him is to think of grace. To be with Him is to be with grace. His life is just filled with it. It stands to reason, then, that the more my life becomes about Jesus the more my life is filled with grace.

About ten years ago, I began an intensive study of the life ofjesus Christ. It is the largest study I have ever undertaken, and it led directly to the birth of this blog, and of my ministry as a writer. In the course of that study Jesus Christ became a much larger part of my mind and heart, and a much larger part of my ministry. And although I did not intend for this to happen; I have found that grace has become a larger part of my life as well. Why? Because Jesus is, and He is full of grace and truth.

Third, seek to let the grace that increasingly fills your life overflow from it to those around you. I have spoken already in this series about giving grace but just one quick word more here. Again and again, an inspired author of Scripture wishes grace upon someone else. (Romans 1.7, I Timothy 1.2, II Timothy 1.2, Titus 1.4, Philemon 1.3, II John 1.3) Such a person, one who properly values grace highly, wants others to partake of its benefits. Because of this, it views others with grace, treats others with grace, and speaks to others with grace. Life is both giving and receiving. If grace is only present in the latter it will not fill my life. I must pour it out on all and sundry.

Fourth, seek to build your concept of, understanding of, and ability in the use of grace. Paul said to Timothy, Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (II Timothy 2.1) In a sense, that is what this blog series is designed to do. As your grasp of grace, of its importance and of the place it ought to hold in your life grows, and as your understanding of what it is and how it operates grows, grace becomes stronger in your life. That cannot help but aid you as you seek to grow in Christ.

Fifth, witness. I mentioned it briefly above, but when I tell others about Christ I am reminded again of the greatness of the grace of God. But beyond that reminder, there is something about the action of seeking to introduce others to Christ that brings grace to me. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. (Acts 4.33)

Even after all these years, soul winning does not come easy 27072322_1818036884894958_4754893433466409722_nto me. My neighborhood is spiritually cold, not to mention often physically cold. The majority of the people who live in the houses whose doors I knock on do not speak English much, if at all. I have spent hundreds of hours going door to door, inviting people to church and seeking to speak a word for Christ on the streets around my church building and I have comparatively little fruit to show from it. I confess that cold reception is difficult for me to overcome sometimes. It takes grace, so to speak, to continue to offer Christ to a sin-wracked neighborhood that seems to want little to do with Him. In so doing, then, grace comes into my life in yet another way so that whether people are responding or whether they are rejecting, grace is upon me.

Last, if you want to live in an atmosphere of grace you must spend time in the Word of God. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. (Acts 20.32) God's Word is full of grace, front to back. It overflows from its pages. It drips from its stories. It abounds in the Scriptures. Well, as I spend time in its pages that same grace flows into my life. It fills my mind, my heart, and my thoughts. Without even trying to, necessarily, and perhaps without even realizing it, I begin to grow as a Christian. Why? Because my life is surrounded by, is filled by, and abounds in grace.

I think sometimes we do the Lord a disservice by attempting to grow, by trying to get bigger, stronger, faster, so to speak, in our Christianity. Perhaps, on the other hand, we should simply immerse ourselves in grace and let God produce the growth in us organically and naturally.

I suppose that last paragraph could be read wrong, or applied wrong, but I cannot bring myself to delete it. I genuinely believe that Peter was right. If we want to grow we can only do so in grace.

So, fill your life with it. And then watch the growth happen.   

Monday, February 12, 2018

Grow in Grace

Grace 5

One of the best known of all the references to grace in the Bible is Peter's summary statement at the conclusion of his second epistle, But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.

Certainly, this is a command or instruction calling on us to grow as Christians. A satisfied Christian, resting on his laurels, is an unhealthy Christian. We ought to grow in our love for the Lord, in our knowledge of the Word of God, and in our ability or capacity to serve Him. A wise Christian takes special note of his weaknesses and strategizes a plan of attack to strengthen them. If his prayer life is weak or his witnessing anemic or his patience frequently frayed he seeks to get better at these, to grow.

palnt ( all this is true, I also think it comes short of the idea that Peter is seeking to communicate here. Yes, we are called to grow, to develop, but in placing all the emphasis of our application on the first word of that phrase we miss something beautiful – the last two words of the phrase. Yes, we are to grow, but what do we grow in? Grace.

My wife, Mandy, was raised on a hillside farm in rural Pennsylvania, and although we live in inner city Chicago she still enjoys planting a small garden each year. It is strategically located directly outside my office window in a small square formed by two angles of our brick church building. It gets a fair amount of sun for being in the city, and the sun-warmed brick adds a helpful boost even when the afternoon shadows develop. Each Spring she diligently digs up the existing soil, mixes in some new dirt, and then plants our small crop of tomatoes, sunflowers, mint, basil, and zucchini. As the weeks pass, other than the occasional weeding and pruning, which she does, and the watering, which I do, it largely takes care of itself. As summer reaches it peak we begin to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
What does each one of those plants grow in? Dirt. That topsoil contains the nutrients necessary for it to grow. Yes, water and sun necessarily contribute, but a plant left sitting on the picnic table beside the garden will die no matter how much water and sun it gets. Hydroponics aside, plants grow in dirt.

This is the illustration Peter is seeking to convey. Christians grow, but how do they grow? They only grow if they are planted in and rooted into an atmosphere of grace.

I liken being planted in grace to being saved. There are a host of people in the world who are trying to grow their spiritual capacity, to develop themselves spiritually, who are fatally hindered by the fact they have never been saved. Beloved, we must begin at the beginning. We must humbly receive first grace if we are to have any hope of growing in grace.

Being planted, however, is just the beginning. Like Peter, Paul often used agricultural illustrations in his writing. For example, he tells us in Colossians 2, Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving. To be rooted references a plant that has progressed beyond its initial sowing. As its roots spread out and down, thrusting into the fertile soil, it builds the base necessary to support the visible growth we see above ground.

This is why the root comes before the fruit, so to speak, and the same thing is true in the Christian life. I hold a firm belief that our lives ought to show our Christianity outwardly, that we ought to bear visible fruit, but I think sometimes the independent Baptist movement places too much stress upon this. If a plant has a healthy root system it almost always produces a visible, growing stalk with fruit.

Peter tells us to grow in grace, and Paul tells us to be rooted and built up in him. We will never go any further in the Christian life than our grasp of Jesus Christ. It begins by Him, it continues in Him, and it ends with Him. Our Christianity must be soundly established in an understanding of Who He is and what He does. The only way to establish maturity in the Christian life is to know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering, being made conformable unto His death.

Not only are we rooted and built up in him but coinciding tumbleweed3with that we are stablished in the faith. Those two words in Scripture – "the faith" – represent the corporate body of doctrinal truth each Christian is called to understand and believe. A Christian who does not know what he believes and why he believes is a weak Christian. Such a person will simply parrot back whatever they heard from the last strong personality they encountered. Like tumbleweeds, they are blown about by every wind of doctrine. They never establish themselves in the faith and grow the sturdy roots necessary to be like a tree planted by the rivers of water. Speaking plainly here, do you know what the fundamentals of the faith are? Do you know what the Baptist distinctives are? Do you have a decent if not systematic grasp of orthodox doctrine? Further, do you understand the why behind the what of our conservative positions of doctrine and practice? In the short term, I can get any Christian to temporarily do most anything, but they will not produce fruit over the long term unless they are stablished in the faith.

As you can imagine, this requires an enormous amount of teaching on the part of those overseeing the young Christian. Paul said that being rooted and stablished comes as ye have been taught. You do not develop deep and sturdy roots overnight. It takes a lot of time, on the part of both the teacher and the student, time in church, time studying the Bible, time deepening your knowledge and understanding, to be rooted and stablished.

Some months ago a pastor in another state, who had read "Schizophrenic", contacted me. He explained that he was burdened to see the young people in his Christian school stay in the faith in which they had been raised after they graduated. He asked me to come and spend a number of days teaching in the high school in relation to this. Travel is not easy for me, and I initially turned him down, but he was gently persistent so I finally consented. This week I had the distinct pleasure of getting to know that pastor, and those fine young people, as we shared some time together in the Word of God. At the risk of seeming to be overly complimentary, that is good leadership on the part of a wise pastor. He wants to see his young people rooted and built up in him and stablished in the faith and knowing this only comes about by teaching he is prioritizing such instruction.

I am a bit weary of depth in the Christian life being criticized in our circles. One would think Scripture says nothing of the deep things of God when it actually does. (I Corinthians 2.10) If, as a Christian, you neglect your root structure, the hidden part, the deepening of your faith, such neglect will inevitably and eventually reveal itself in a sickly stalk sparsely populated with puny fruit.

Do you want to grow as a Christian? Then you must pursue a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ and of the faith to which you are called. If you do not you will simply wander hither and yon, bouncing from church to church, from spiritual system to spiritual system, constantly frustrated and never growing to maturity. Bringing us back to grace, the Holy Spirit said it this way in Hebrews 13.9, Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace.

Do you want to grow? Then you must grow in grace, establishing yourself more deeply in Him and in a knowledge and understanding of our mutual faith.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Grace of His Lips

Grace 4

Grace is the means by which I become a Christian, and faith is the mechanism that makes those means effectual. Put another way, faith is the hand that reaches up to God to access the grace I must have in order to get saved. By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5.2) This rich grace, however, is not designed to come to me; it is designed to flow through me. As I argued last week, I am not only to receive grace, but to give grace, to cultivate a spirit of graciousness in my interactions toward others around me.

This inward attitude – a default setting desirous of dispensing grace – that I feel toward others needs to be experienced by them in order to help them. It is not enough for me to view another person with grace; I must reveal that grace to them. Grace does not help anyone if you keep it to yourself, if you do not lavishly pour it out on someone else like God does.

In the direct context of the words we use in our conversation with other people Paul said, Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. (Ephesians 4.29) There is both a negative and a positive command here. Do not speak that which would corrupt another. Do speak that which will edify, or build them up. They may not deserve those edifying words, those kind words, those forgiving words, those encouraging words, but it is this very lack of deserving that makes such words gracious. It is not enough for me to experience grace. It is not even enough for me to feel a spirit of grace toward another person. That grace needs to be ministered to them, it needs to be poured out on them.

It is the purpose of this post to establish that one of the harsh wordsprimary ways we minister grace to others is with our speech. Recently, I have been much troubled about one of my members. They had absented themselves from the assembly for most of 2017 on the pretext of a flimsy excuse. At first, I was quietly encouraging, but as time went on and they refused to admit that their behavior was ungodly let alone to change it, I found myself getting perturbed. In the end, they would not so much as acknowledge frequent attempts to communicate with them. As 2017 turned over to 2018 I had a post-it note sitting on my desk instructing me to inform them that their membership in our church was about to be terminated for their lack of attendance, a visible reminder of my failure as a pastor and their failure as a Christian. Lo, and behold, guess who showed up the first Sunday of the new year? You guessed it. As I caught a glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye that Sunday morning I sadly confess my instinct was to lash out at them, to accuse them of laziness and indifference, to call them to account for their behavior, and for how they had hurt others in our church who had tried to reach out to them. But by the grace of God I fought off that first instinct. Instead, I simply said to them, "Why, hello there. It is great to see you. Having you back is the best thing that has happened to me today." And to my own surprise, I found I actually meant those words as I said them. Their response was as unexpected as their presence. Without a word, they walked toward me, threw their arms around me, and whispered in my ear, "Thank you for saying that." My first instinct would not have ministered grace, now would it? Only an undeserved kindness could. And it did.

Giving people a piece of my mind often makes me feel better temporarily but it just as often fails to result in anybody's growth. Speech which is good to the use of edifying most often comes from grace, not from getting something off my chest.

To speak with such grace toward others, however, requires more than a discipline of my tongue; it requires that I actually have grace toward them in my heart. Jesus tells us in Matthew 12, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. It would be appalling for me to speak grace to people insincerely, to express to them a love and joy and peace and delight in them I do not actually possess. The solution to this is not to stop speaking grace, but rather to actively cultivate a grace toward them in my heart. This is why I was so pleasantly surprised to find I meant what I said to that wayward member a few weeks ago. It came out of my mouth because it was in my heart. Who knew ministering grace to others would be the means of a ministry of grace in my own life?

Solomon tells us in Proverbs 22.11 that there is a direct connection between a pure, sincere heart, and grace-filled speech. He that loveth pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend. I love that phrase, the grace of his lips. God knows I fail all too often in this area, but as I grow in grace – did you see what I did there? – I find that same grace falls from my lips more often than it used to.

graceIndeed, such must be the case. What good is a pastor whose words are not filled with grace? In yet another sobering example, God promotes this explicitly when He instructs Zechariah to be a grace-filled preacher. Bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace unto it. (Zechariah 4.7) Whose grace? God's. And my own. To whom? To sinners far and near.

All too often our shoutings have nothing to do with grace. May we ponder the spiritual poverty of that, and may He lead us to the place that grace be on our lips as we speak one with another.