Monday, April 30, 2018

How to Get Grace

Grace 13

Thus far in this blog series on grace we have examined what grace is, where it begins, how it ought to impact our treatment of one another, and how it becomes the atmosphere in which we grow. We have also examined some of the important doctrinal questions surrounding grace, namely what it means to no longer be under the law but under grace, and how it relates to a legalistic mindset.

Wax Seal Header SubheaderIn today's post, I want to discuss how to get grace. Now I realize that concept will immediately strike some of you wrong since, by definition, we cannot merit or earn grace. But just because grace cannot be merited does not mean that there is not a requirement that we must fulfill prior to obtaining grace. Fulfilling that requirement does not earn us grace, but it does make it possible for grace to come to us.

Salvation itself is an illustration of this. How are we saved? By grace is the automatic and correct answer. Yet, though, that grace is freely offered to every human being it is certain that not every human being has received it. How do we human beings obtain the grace of God for salvation? By faith. By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand. (Romans 5.2) Faith is the hand that reaches up to Heaven to obtain the grace of God. Did we earn that grace by offering God faith? Of course not, rather we fulfilled the conditions necessary to obtain it. Faith is a requirement for salvation but that salvation is still entirely by grace. For by grace are ye saved through faith. (Ephesians 2.8)

As the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ we need His grace just as much now as we did while we were yet sinners. (Romans 5.8) We need the grace of God to enable us, to empower us, to help us to obey every command in the Bible: large or small. We must have His grace, not just for eternity, but for today. So how do we get it?

Grace comes free, but it does have one requirement – humility. Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly. (Proverbs 3.34)

Some years ago, I did an intensive word study in Proverbs. Such a study might be a good blog series on its own, now that I think about it. In that study, I discovered that a scorner is a person driven by pride to reject instruction. He not only foolishly embraces his own opinion, but actively seeks to turn others around him likewise away from their instructors towards himself. In dealing with such a creature, God, as He often does, gives him a taste of his own medicine. God ignores the scorner's opinion and instruction, actively seeks to undermine the scorner's influence, and heaps upon him proud disdain in the meantime.

Look for a moment at the contrast in this passage from Proverbs. The scorner's number one attribute is pride, yet the opposite of pride is humility. When a man embraces humility, not about a particular issue, but as a way of life, God, as a result, pours out the undeserved blessings of grace upon him. He giveth grace unto the lowly. 'Lowly' in the 6a00e55043abd088340120a8e619b2970b-320wioriginal language is rooted in the phrases to stoop, to be humbled, to be bowed down. The article 'the' which precedes it implies this is not just an isolated action on the part of a person, but rather a way of thinking and/or living. They do not act lowly on occasion; they actually are classified as 'the lowly.'

For an example of what this looks like in real life I would point you unhesitatingly to Christ. The Old Testament prophet said to Israel, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass. (Zechariah 9.9) Jesus Himself specified this as the correct term to describe Him when He said, Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart. (Matthew 11.29) To quote one of my very first blog posts, "Jesus' entire earthly career is marked by humility. We see it in the events of His birth. We see it in His chosen approach to life, first as a blue- collar laborer and then later as an itinerant, poverty-stricken rabbi. We see it in the events of His death, crucified like a criminal between two thieves and then placed in a borrowed tomb. In fact, God's entire decision to offer redemption by presenting His own Son, in human flesh, to die for us, means He humbled Himself (Philippians 2.8). What did He leave? To what did He come? How did He arrive? How did He live? How was He treated? How did He die? There is humility in the answer to all of these questions. It is wrapped up in the very fabric of who Jesus is."

Likewise, the man so often referred to as the greatest Christian to ever live, the Apostle Paul, lived a life marked by humility. "Wait a minute. Isn't he the guy who boasted that he worked harder than everybody else, and that's why God used him?" Yes, but he also surrounded that assertion by several references to humility. By the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (I Corinthians 15.10) He credits God for every one of his accomplishments, for the churches started, the men trained in ministry, the Scripture written, the influence of a life which almost single-handedly turned Christianity from being the religion of an isolated tribal sect to one that permeated every corner of the Roman Empire.

If God has used you to raise good children, if He has used you to bless hearts with music, if He has used you to win souls to Himself, if He has used you to teach someone the Scriptures, it is He that is doing the using. It is His grace in you that did it. When my first-generation Polish immigrant neighbor greeted me the other day in his broken English with the phrase, "Hello, my best neighbor" he paid me a compliment. But that compliment does not belong to me; it belongs to Him. It is His grace in me that produces anything good with my life. And the minute I lose that understanding is the minute God stops pouring more grace into my life. The Lord's brother said it this way, He giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. (James 4.6)

Grace is amazing. It is wonderful in every sense of the word. No matter what additional superlatives I use to describe it they will fall short of its actual value. If grace contains so many matchless blessings then why would I not want as much of it as I can possibly get? I grow in it – so if I get more I can grow more. It enables me – so if I get more I can do more. If that is not enough, He loves to give it and has an inexhaustible store. Annie Flint penned an exquisite description of this when she wrote…


He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength as our labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials He multiplies peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

…but what would stop me from getting more of that grace I so desperately need and so deeply desire? God resisteth the proud.

As I write this at my dining room table my youngest son, Sam, is sitting a few feet from me on the couch. He is busily engaged in his own pursuits. Several times this week he has stopped himself dead in his tracks, looked at me, and said, "Dad, it's been a long time since we wrestled." Of course, a long time for him is last week, but nevertheless, he delights in wrestling with his father. I am not sure why we call it wrestling, though. The truth is I am so much larger than him the contests are over before they begin. If he wants to move me somewhere there is no way he can if I am really resisting him.

You and I often seek to accomplish something, and good somethings at that. But if we are not making any headway it just may be that our pride is causing God to set His own omnipotent power in array against us, to resist even the good things we are seeking to accomplish. That last thing I need is God resisting me. What I really need is God enabling me, empowering me, pushing me forward. In other words, I need grace. What is the requirement? He giveth grace unto the humble.

I picture it like this: God has a great big tub of grace and a huge wooden spoon. There is a line of people waiting for Him to scoop some up and put it on their plate. But getting in that line is kind of like getting into the lines in the kiddie section of the amusement park – you have to be rather low to the ground.fall-on-one-face

Some ignorantly say, "Ah, that cruel, mean God is making us crawl to Him. Well, I'm better than that. I won't crawl for anybody." I say, "That wonderfully good God is just waiting to lavishly pour out on us His undeserved goodness, but He wants to make sure it isn't wasted so He waits for humility to be evidenced first."

We cannot merit grace. Perish the thought. But grace does have a requirement. Beloved, do you view Him as high and holy and lifted up, and yourself as a man of unclean lips? Then brace yourself. Grace is coming your way by the truck load.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Destruction of Legalism

Grace 12
Note: by Joe Cassada

Welcome to the fourth and final article in this series within a series. If I may, I’d like to preface this last post with a word of thanks to Tom Brennan for entrusting me with the important task of addressing a complicated issue – one that, within the context of independent fundamental Baptist churches, is an emotional (and even a volatile) topic. Tom has worked hard to build his readership over the years, and I know that a subject as touchy as legalism is one which carries with it the very real possibility of causing significant attrition among his readers.

To Tom’s readers, I say thank you for reading. I imagine that most of you know Tom much better than you know me, so let me invoke your graciousness towards Tom. After this post, this blog will return to Tom’s measure of normal, so hang in there with him. It would be unwise to assume that everything I’ve said is something that Tom would say. 

Legalism is an intricate theological issue that doubles as a heart-sin. As such, it inherently involves nuances and perspectives that will vary from preacher to preacher, and my attempt at doctrinal precision may not match Tom’s own. We’re both mowing the same lawn with the same lawn mower, but it’s possible he will go clockwise around while I prefer a diagonal cut. Keep that in mind.

2e47d583ea08921be40d9623d217758eI’m sure most of you have been accused of being legalists at some point in your life. It’s not fun and many times it is unjust. But the only thing worse than enduring false accusation is tolerating our own willful ignorance of indwelling sin. Let us not be like the church of the Laodiceans who were oblivious to their own failures and deficiencies. If we find even the seminal germ of legalism in our hearts, let’s root it out.

Earlier, I gave a biblical definition of legalism based on a very brief sketch of the issues Paul addressed in Galatians and Sinclair Ferguson’s treatment of the temptation of Eve in the garden (Ferguson, 82-83). I came to the conclusion that, in its most basic meaning, we can describe legalism as “an abuse of law and grace so that God’s favor becomes something that must be earned.” Having discussed legalism’s danger, definition, and detection, let’s now turn to the next task at hand: legalism’s destruction.

How can we defeat this sin? If legalism is an abuse of law and grace, then it is defeated by a proper understanding of law and grace. We should start there.

The law of God is a good thing. Paul says as much in Romans 7:12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. The Bible is replete with positive and even affectionate terms for God’s law:

Psa 40:8 I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.

Psa 119:97 O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day; 165 Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them; 174 I have longed for thy salvation, O LORD; and thy law is my delight.

f191974646dde09a48b94353413de1e6_f1549The defeat of legalism is not accomplished by keeping God’s law in low esteem. We are not freed from legalism by pursuing libertine values and forsaking the commandments of God. The 1689 London Baptist Confession describes the law as something positive and good for believers because “it is of great use to them as well as to others, in that as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against, sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience;” (chapter 19, paragraph 6)

Don’t miss this: a proper understanding of the law drives us towards Christ, not away from him. The law wasn’t a mistake; it is perfect. Paul says it is holy and just and good. But neither was it designed to give life. Only through the grace of Christ can we have life, but when we go to the law for life, we fan the flames of destructive legalism.

Neither should we abuse grace. Obedience is still important, and grace doesn’t deny this. Holiness is still something Christians ought to pursue. The verses in the Bible that deal with the Christian’s behavior, including such unpopular topics as how we dress, talk, and even entertain ourselves, actually do mean something. We may disagree as to what they mean, but we have no right to dismiss them.

Thomas Manton (1620–1677) wrote, “It is a great grief to the Spirit of God when you abuse grace. You do as it were put your miscarriages upon him, when you call licentious walking Christian liberty, and neglect of duty gospel freedom, and godly sorrow legalism, and strict walking superstitious niceness; you do as it were father your bastards upon the Spirit, and entitle the monstrous conceptions and births of your own carnal hearts to his incubation and overshadowing; you think God warranteth you in all this, and that is a high wrong to him which he will avenge in due time.” (Manton, 81)

Manton is right. We abuse grace when we blame our sin on Christian liberty. It is a blasphemy which God will not let go unpunished. Beware of falsely thinking that, since grace abounds where sin abounds, then we can continue in sin so that grace may abound. The Apostle Paul’s response to that twisted thinking is “God forbid!”

In my opinion, no greater picture of this relationship between law and grace exists (outside of Holy Scripture) than in what we find in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” In the scene of the Interpreter’s house, Christian is shown a curious sight: a large room caked in dust that had never been swept. A man entered the dirty room and began to sweep, and “the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a damsel that stood by, ‘Bring hither water, and sprinkle the room;’ the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.”

We echo Christian’s inquisitive response: “What means this?”

The Interpreter answered, “This parlor is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel. The dust is his original sin, and inward corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first, is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel.

6180836824_978521dee3_z“Now whereas thou sawest, that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou wast almost choked therewith; this is to show thee, that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it; for it doth not give power to subdue

“Again, as thou sawest the damsel sprinkle the room with water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure, this is to show thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then, I say, even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of glory to inhabit.” (Bunyan, 81-82)

I think if some Christians were to rewrite Bunyan’s allegory, they would cause the maiden to enter, and instead of cleansing the room of filth, she would content herself to wallow in the grime. This isn’t grace. The law cannot make your heart clean, and grace comes not to overlook the dirt, but to remove it. Does grace make obedience irrelevant? No. It makes it possible.

Tom has already written a great deal within this series about the right view of the law and its proper role in the life of the believer, so I will not try the patience of his readers by rewriting what he has already laid out for us in these past several weeks. He has also carefully addressed the nature of grace and the importance of it being rightly understood. So allow me to simply encourage you to apply these truths carefully and to remember: legalism is defeated when we understand these two concepts together: law and grace. The cure for legalism is not more sin, or even a relaxing of rules, it is more grace.

As with any sin, the threat is ever with us while we remain in our earthly tabernacles. And though we know sinless perfection awaits us on the other side of the river, yet we must daily maintain vigilance in the cause against indwelling sin. The promise of full deliverance from sin’s presence should never dissuade us from fighting against sin’s power, for we fight the fight of faith, that is, we lay hold of God’s promises now though we know their entire fulfillment is yet to come. The hand of the faithful soldier is not empty, for the earnest of the promise of future deliverance from sin’s presence becomes a sword with which to battle sin’s power in the present. Don’t lose heart in the battle, for your King has conquered and he has not left you ill-equipped. Love his law, feast on his grace, and pursue his holy example.


Works Cited

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Birmingham: John L. Dagg Publishing Company, 2005. Print.
Ferguson, Sinclair. The Whole Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016. Print.
Manton, Thomas. The Complete Works of Thomas Manton. Still Water Revival Books. PDF.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Detection of Legalism

Grace 11

Note: This is the third in a four post mini-series on legalism set within the context of this series on grace. These are by Pastor Joe Cassada of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Maryland Heights, Missouri. You may find the first two parts here and here.

In the last two posts, I warned that two popular thunderstandings of legalism will ultimately fail to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked in this battle against the “legal spirit.” Those two understandings are the idea that legalism is simply being overly strict, and the second is the idea that legalism is only an effort to save oneself by one’s good works. Last week, I gave a biblical definition of understanding based on a very brief sketch of the issues Paul addressed in Galatians and Sinclair Ferguson’s treatment of the temptation of Eve in the garden (Ferguson, 82-83). I came to the conclusion that in its most distilled definition, we can describe legalism as “an abuse of law and grace so that God’s favor becomes something that must be earned.”

Now we come to the messy job of finding this sin of the heart and rooting it out, and like any battle against the Christian’s remaining sin, it is an ongoing conflict that requires perpetual vigilance and a willingness to be exceedingly thorough in examining our hearts. This is not a call to morose introspection that is followed by a retreat into one’s own sense of helplessness and a pining away for the perceived lack of progress towards holiness. While the Sauls wring their hands in their tents, let the Davids go to the battle in the name of the LORD. King Jesus has smitten his enemies before him, let us ride out with him and utterly destroy the retreating stragglers.

But we must find them. The legal spirit is a master of disguise – a shape-shifting sin who is able to sneak through defensive positions undetected. He hides in the dens and in the rocks of our hearts and minds. How can we find him and flush him out?

Let me share with you what has helped me in the battle against this particular sin. Keep in mind that I am no expert here. I share this with you “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.” I freely confess that I am a man of like passions and the Canaanites remain in my land, too. But this has helped me, and perhaps it will help you.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Rembrandt, 1669
It dawned on me that the legal spirit was safely tucked away in my own thinking when I came to understand the Lord’s parable of the prodigal son as it should be understood. Previous to this epiphany (if I may use the word) I had actually admired the eldest son in the story. And my misplaced admiration for the eldest son was bolstered by a number of famous sermons that perpetuated my misunderstanding. One such sermon was titled “Let’s Hear It For the Other Son” which was preached during a popular youth conference at a large Baptist church. (It is not my purpose here to pick bones, so I find no need to mention names. Those who care, know of whom I speak; those who don’t, don’t. After all, the sermon I’m referring to wasn’t an isolated incident of one Baptist preacher’s abuse of scripture, but a representative of many such sermons preached in many different pulpits.)

In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus tells the story of a man who had two sons: the youngest demanded his inheritance and then proceeded to waste it all on sin. Later he “came to himself” and determined to return to his father in repentance. He indeed returned, and the father welcomed him home with gracious mercy. A party was given in honor of the occasion, but the eldest brother refused to attend. The eldest son was indignant and said to his father, “thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.”

Luke chapter 15 begins with these words: “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. And he spake this parable unto them...” The three parables of lost things (the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) were parables spoken to the Pharisees to expose their sin of the indignation against Jesus for his reaching out in mercy to the worst of the worst. The eldest son was emblematic of the scribes and Pharisees who mumbled and murmured that publicans and sinners (the prodigals of the world) were getting saved. The eldest son was a rank legalist.

In the above-mentioned sermon, the preacher said in reference to the oldest that, “I kinda like the guy. I wouldn’t have gone to the party...he’s my kinda guy.” And further into the sermon, the preacher added, “This kinda guy [the eldest brother] is exactly what this Bible conference is all about.” He went on to preach how we need to be throwing parties for the young people who never go into sin – the faithful ones who never rebel, just like the eldest brother.

Such preaching totally misses the point of the Savior’s parable and commits a serious error by making a hero out of a legalist instead of humbling our hearts at the gracious mercy we have received from the Father. Jesus didn’t tell this story to pat the Pharisees on the backs for their works of righteousness, but to expose the corrupting legalism that had so infected their hearts with spiritual arrogance that they assumed they had a right to the Father’s blessings because of their many years of faithful service.

Listen again to the eldest son’s complaint: “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” (Luke 15:29). These are the words of the legalist. “You owe me for what I have done. I have earned your blessing.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Guercino, 1619
But what is the father’s response? “...all that I have is thine.” Both the prodigal and the eldest son were offered the father’s blessings, not on the basis of works and performance, but on the very basis of the father’s goodness to his children. The prodigal was not made to earn his spot back to the table by serving as lowly field-hand, nor was the eldest son given all that was his father’s on the basis of his perfect attendance record; rather, both are offered all things because they are simply his children. It is a gracious offering from a father who loves.

At this point, many fly off the rails because they balk at the interpretation of the eldest son representing a Pharisee and the prodigal son representing converted publicans. They want the prodigal to be the backslidden Christian and the eldest to be the faithful Christian. They might say, “How could the prodigal be called a son if he wasn’t saved at the beginning of the story? And how could the eldest represent a Pharisee if the father spoke of the eldest son affectionately whereas the Pharisees were enemies of Christ?” These are good questions, but they are representative of the old adage “missing the forest for the trees.” The parables of Christ generally teach one truth, but when we get bogged down by trying to make all the details of the story find some exact parallel we end up pounding square pegs into round holes. The one truth of the parable of the prodigal son is that God is gracious to sinners. It’s about grace – something the Pharisees needed to learn.
So here’s how you can shine the lamp of grace into the corners of your heart as you search for the leaven of legalism: ask yourself, “Do I admire the eldest son? Do I sympathize with his feelings? Do I feel like I have earned a fatted calf because I have been faithful in my work?”

Does God owe me a fatted calf because I pray for exactly 60 minutes every day and not 23? Does God owe me a party with my friends because I knock on doors an hour every week, rain or shine? Do I feel that asking a hundred times a day “O God! Give me your power!” functions like some progress bar wherein the more I ask the more power I get?
th (1)Do you feel that your praying, Bible reading, soul winning, church attendance, fasting, or whatever good works you perform earn something from God? Oh, my brothers and sisters! God owes us nothing. It’s better than that. He has freely given us all things in Christ. This is grace.

Romans 8:31 What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? 32 He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?

Does this mean that obedience isn’t required? Can we live any way we want and still expect these blessings offered to us in Christ? No. Obedience is still relevant. We will sort through these issues when we discuss how we can defeat the legal spirit.

Assuming we have detected legalism in our hearts, how can we destroy it? I’ll offer an answer next time.
Works Cited
Ferguson, Sinclair. The Whole Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016. Print.