When grace isn't quite so graceful

Man, I messed up big time the other day. My words and my actions totally threw my life out of balance and I spent a lot time trying to make amends for my sinfulness. I'm sure you can relate to my dilemma because you've probably recently found yourself in the same spiritual quagmire. You royally blew it and now you feel slightly less worthy than a piece of maggot-infested garbage. Why do we continue to struggle with the same old sins for which Jesus suffered and died?

Maybe your issue isn't what you've just recently done but rather what haunts you from your past. There was that time in your life when you were far from God, living a life that now makes you want to retch. Or perhaps you are the product of abuse, whether it was sexual, physical, or emotional. Your view of yourself is so low that you struggle to move on because of the guilt and feelings of inadequacy that you can't seem to shake.

But then God stepped in and the miraculous happened. Jesus found you and in the arms of His redemption and grace you have found purpose. You have been set free, the weight of sin and shame no longer pinning you down and convincing you that you are unworthy. You have been declared righteous - justified - in the eyes of God and He sees you as His precious child, beautiful in His sight. Do you deserve all of this? No! None of us deserve God's grace and mercy and love and forgiveness yet He gives it to us - He lavishes it on us! (Ephesians 1:7-8) - freely and without hesitation.

Yet in spite of God's love and incredible forgiveness, you can't move past your past. Something inside of you just can't accept His grace and unconditional love. So you hide deeper within yourself and you die a little bit spiritually every day, malnourished from your refusal to dine at the Lord's table.

It is an absolute tragedy when God's grace is not accepted. And this refusal of His grace usually hits us in two ways. First, when you struggle to accept God's grace for your life then your focus becomes YOU and not Him. Jesus bled and died for you - there is nothing that can separate you from God's love in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:31-39) - yet somehow you have managed to wedge yourself away from the reality of His grace. Oh don't get me wrong, you can do nothing to diminish God's grace and salvation, but it is possible to render yourself ineffective by refusing to live in the reality of it.

When we do this, we live selfishly as if grace is not enough. This isn't humility - it's self-flagellation - and it's offensive to God because what Jesus bought us on the cross is ENOUGH. No amount of self-abuse that we might bring upon ourselves will add one micron to the salvation and grace that has been freely given to us in Christ. If this is you, stop acting like you are helping God by punishing yourself. He doesn't need your help and it's laughable that you live as if He does. Instead, swim in the sea of His grace, not because you deserve it but rather because He gives it in spite of our unworthiness.

Now here's where it's about to get real, even more serious if that's possible. There is a second way that the grace of God is refused. In our world and churches there are "Christians" who have set themselves up as the judge and jury for God's grace and have taken it upon themselves to dispense and withhold grace to others at their own bidding. Somehow if your sin is too great in their eyes then they decide that you are anathema and therefore not worthy of their time or God's grace. It doesn't matter that you have been redeemed, you aren't fit to serve. You may be forgiven by God, but that's doesn't mean I have to accept you. You don't deserve God's grace.

I know that may sound harsh. After all, we must be careful whom we allow to hold influence in our churches and ministries. There is no way in the world that a convicted sex offender or habitual drug user is going to serve in my student ministry. Some sins, while forgiven by God, disqualify us from serving in certain leadership areas. But there is no sin no matter how big or small that God's grace cannot cover, so stop treating people as if they have no hope! How dare we view God's grace as more sufficient for some over others!

The Lord told Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that His grace was sufficient for him in his greatest weakness.

In Ephesians 2:8-9 we are told that we are saved by grace through faith, not by any work we may strive to perform or leave undone.

God's grace is enough. It is all we need. His grace covers our sin and our past, refusing to dredge up our past failures and instead setting us up as more than conquerors through Christ who loved us (Romans 8:37). May we see grace as God sees it and not as some measuring rod that we use to sinfully hold those back for whom Jesus bled and died. Let me finish by saying it this way: Get over yourself and stop being a grace-baiter.  

The Gospel + Something Else = Wrong Answer

In the spring of 1989 I plunged head first into the Greek system at Wake Forest University by joining a fraternity. True to what you may have been led to believe on TV or in books, many fraternities indeed ARE as crazy as you think, and my fraternity was on that list. Not all the fun that we had was destructive and evil - I have some really great memories and still keep up with some pretty awesome guys - but for the most part debauchery was the primary goal.

Now as a kid raised in a conservative Southern Baptist church, hedonism and Sunday school don't mix together too well. I knew all too well the lessons from the Bible and the truth that lay behind them, yet they were not enough to keep me from wanting to run to the dark side for a time and enjoy all of it's guilty pleasures. Was I properly taught the Scriptures? If I were truly saved, would I have gone down this wayward path? What went wrong?

You see, the Bible teaching that I received growing up was first rate and I would not trade it for the world. The problem that I encountered from many well-meaning Christians - and what many in Christian culture face as well - were all the "extras" that get pinned on the message of the gospel. Unlike the bonus features on a DVD or the hidden scene at the end of a the movie credits, these extras do not allow us to understand the greater extent of the gospel. In fact, they usually push us farther away.

The apostle Paul lived and ministered during a time when Christianity was beginning to explode in the Jewish and Gentile world in Asia Minor (the region including modern day Turkey). As he traveled throughout those countries, Paul would plant and oversee dozens of churches which were filled with new Christians, many of whom came from Jewish backgrounds. It was difficult for those new believers at times to forget all of the rituals and rules that they had to obey when they were followers of Judaism, and it was especially challenging for these new followers of Christ to believe that they no longer had to rely on the Jewish law for their salvation.

In his letters to the believers in Galatia and Colossae, Paul saw the need to address the issue that many were holding to: In order to be a Christian, you had to have the gospel + something else. For those churches that Paul was investing in, they had fallen into the trap that this "something else" they had to abide by was the ritual of circumcision. If they were to be considered true Christians then they MUST be circumcised. We often do the same thing today, although I'm glad it's not circumcision!

You fill in the blank with whatever "something else" you've been told that you have to do in order to be a "proper" Christian: Wear a coat and tie on Sunday, read a certain version of the Bible, avoid alcohol at all costs, sing to a certain type of music in worship, etc. Do you see how reckless and foolish this is? What if you fail at one of these? Does that mean you are aren't truly saved? Let me tell you why this perspective is truly dangerous: When we try to add anything to the gospel, then we are essentially telling Jesus that His cross was not enough. There has to be something that WE add to it in order to make our salvation secure. How ridiculous! How arrogant!

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul addresses this issue head-on:
Christ has liberated us into freedom. Therefore stand firm and don't submit again to a yoke of slavery...For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love...For you were called to freedom, brothers; only don't use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. (Galatians 5:1, 6, 13)
The gospel + something else is always the wrong answer. It's slavery because it adds to the gospel the impossibility that you have something that you can bring to bolster what Jesus did on the cross. In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul gives us this stern warning:
Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
Those people who try to be part of our spiritual upbringing by adding extra rules and regulations mean well but all they do is blur the lines between holiness and legalism. During my fraternity days I found that I could not live up to all of the extra spiritual expectations put on me by many well-meaning men and women, so I quit trying. It wasn't until a college pastor from my home church offered to walk alongside of me and extend to me a fresh perspective of God's grace that I began to walk out of darkness of that spiritual jungle.

The gospel is all that we need. If there was anything else that we had to bring to the table, then Jesus would not have bothered to go to the cross. And while almost every single Christian that I know believes this, most still live as if all those "extras" are essential if they are to be accepted by God. Indeed we are called to live holy and pure lives, not so that we can strengthen the salvation we have in Christ but rather as an expression of love and obedience to the One who has saved us.


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I am serving as camp pastor at a placed called Laurel Ridge in the NC moutains this week, so today I decided to go hiking on some trails in ...