Monday, May 30, 2011

Confessing our Sins

Some of us labor endlessly and compulsively to confess our sins.  We feel as though we must confess something every time we feel badly or feel "guilty."  I want to spend a minute or two looking at what I believe the point of confession of our sin to God is, Biblically.

First, we should look at what confession is not.  Confession is not a way to obtain God's acceptance.  It is not as though we forfeit God's acceptance and consign ourselves to hell if we have forgotten to confess a sin and, say, get suddenly hit by a bus.  Confession is also not informing God of something He doesn't know.  God is not surprised by our sin.  He knows everything in our hearts, everything about us, and He knows every sin we have committed and will commit.  He knows our every struggle and every inclination.

So what is it?  If we look at the Gospel and understand what it is about, I think we will understand the point of confession.  The "good news" is that God has provided what He requires, in Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  That is the Gospel.  What God desires is that fallen human beings, like you and I, turn to Him as Father, embracing by faith what He has done for us as a gift to remove all the obstacles of our sin and unholiness and make peace.  In short, the Gospel announces the costly-but-free open door to mankind's return to Him, in true closeness and intimacy and love and vulnerability and happiness.

Therefore, I believe the point of confessing our sins is this:  it marks our acknowledgement to Him of doing something that harms our side of our relationship with Him.  It is for our benefit.  His arms remain open to us.  When we sin, we turn from Him and our relationship with Him, if even for a moment.  Confession is a verbal acknowledgement of our heart's return, a way for us to relationally "get off our chest" what we have done and re-open ourselves to relationship with Him.  It does not cause Him to change toward us, for He never changes.

To use a human example.  Imagine that a husband and wife get into an argument.  The husband knows that the wife is right, but he is too stubborn and proud to admit it.  So he storms off, hops in the car, and races away.  After a few hours alone, he comes to grips with what he had done and what a jerk he had been.  The wife is upset, but she loves him and longs for him to come home.  Finally, he pulls into the driveway.  He comes to the door but is afraid to just come in, because he feels unworthy.  As he raises his hand to knock on the door, the wife opens the door gently. He stops for a moment in silence, looks at her, and says, "Baby, I'm sorry.  You are completely right."  She throws her arms around him and says, "I'm just glad you are home."  And they lived happily ever after...

Confessing our sins is our way of acknowledging that God is right.  It is an outward expression of our humble admission of guilt and our return to closeness with our Father.  Confession does not earn relationship -it presupposes that relationship already exists.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Crucified with Christ

I have two tattoos.  I may get more.  I wanted each of them to be something I wanted permanently etched on my body, something I am not ashamed of, something that signifies things that will endure long after the skin it is inked on is turned to dust.

For my first tattoo, I was unsure what exactly I wanted.  Then the phrase struck me, "Crucified with Christ."  It comes from Galatians 2:20.  That and the verse that follows are two of my favorite verses, and favorite truths, in all of Scripture.  It was my prayer that I would understand more deeply what it meant to be "crucified with Christ" more and more as I grew and aged.

Immediately after that, I fell into probably the hardest time of my life.  I remember thinking to myself, "Is this what it means?  It means that I suffer with Christ in this world, overcoming with Him and like Him and by Him through my own 'death' to self and to this world?"  There is truth to that, but I don't think that is what it means.

I think it means this.  When I look at all of my efforts, all of my supposed "goodness," all of the things I muster up to try and say, "I'm doing a good job," all of my failures, all of my weaknesses, all of my sins, and even all of my strengths -basically everything that is "me"- and I add it all up, I am as good as dead.  I fall short no matter what angle I look at it.  I'm condemnable, spiritually dead, poor, hopeless before God, alienated from Him, lost, ignorant, foolish, and unable.

But with Christ, through my union with Him in my spiritual poverty, that me is dead with Him.  It was nailed to the cross because He was nailed to the cross.  His sacrifice, His crucifixion and all the justifying, sin-covering power of it, becomes mine as that "me" died there.  Good as dead, condemned, and now dead and buried.  But now the life of the risen Christ lives in me.  His resurrection power brings new life in me.

I really appreciate the way the author of the Gospel Coalition tract, "What is the Gospel?", puts it:

"After he concludes that no amount of doing good can justify a person before a holy God, the apostle Paul adds, 'I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live" (Gal 2:20).  As horrible as these words sound, they are the obvious conclusion of what it means to stand before God on the basis of Jesus' sacrifice rather than our saintliness.  What he did rather than what we do is our hope."  (Gospel Coalition tract, "What is the Gospel", page 17 in the nook edition).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Obedience and the Gospel

This is from another email I wrote to a person who is confused about how obedience fits in with the Gospel.

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Works based salvation = I obey; therefore I am accepted.


The Gospel = I am accepted; therefore I obey.

They are diametrically opposed. The issue isn't with obeying God. It isn't even with the Law. It is our approach to God. Is he a boss, a dispenser of good or bad outcomes which I can manipulate by my actions? Or is He a God who wants us back, to be our Father, to build a kingdom with us, and to be intimately close to us, to invite us into the intimate dance that the members of the Trinity have enjoyed with each other from eternity past? Those things could not be more opposite. If am constantly trying to please my wife and banking everything on my performance, it might look great from the outside, but inside it might just be, "let me give you what you want so you will shut up and leave me alone," or "let me give you what you want so that I can feel safe and not have to be alone." When a relationship is built upon performance, it automatically has nothing to do with closeness. In fact, performance can be a way to *avoid* closeness.

Look at the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son says, "Dad, I don't care about you -I want my share of your inheritance now so I can go blow it on frivolous living." He essentially told his dad, "I wish you were dead so I can have your stuff -can you just give it to me now?" He went off and blew it all. He comes back, and the father runs, embraces him, reinstates him, and throws a feast for him. You know how the story goes.

But there is another person in the story. In fact, you can easily argue that this person, the elder brother, is THE point of the story. It says that Jesus told this story to the Pharisees, after all. This brother did everything the father wanted. When the younger brother came back and the father reinstated him, how did the elder brother react? He was furious. He was saying, "Dad, I always did everything right. I NEVER disobeyed you. I earned my right to be treated a certain way and I am entitled to the rest of the inheritance. How *dare* you use it to reinstate that disobedient loser!"

The elder brother actually had the same problem as the younger: "I don't want closeness with you, Dad. I just want control of your stuff. I'm in it for the results and goods that I want." The younger brother asked for it and then blew it by being very, very bad. The older brother sought to obtain it and indebt it by being very, very good. His true motives were revealed when the "stuff" or "ends" or "results" he thought his obedience earned him was in jeopardy. At the end, this brother is the one who is on the outside of the feast. He wasn't kicked out. He refused, and it wasn't in spite of his apparent "goodness" but *because* of it.

Obeying wasn't the problem. There is nothing wrong with a son obeying his father. If a son really loves his father and has a close relationship with him, it will show. Jesus said, "if you love me, you will obey my commands." That is a descriptive statement. It has nothing to do with us working hard to "prove" ourselves. He is stating a fact.

Deitrich Bonnhoeffer (i know I spelled that wrong) wrote a book called "the Cost of Christian discipleship." In it, he addresses the idea that since grace is free obedience doesn't matter -God will just forgive. He basically said that what is free for us was costly for Christ. If we really grasp what was done for us, we won't live the same way. When we see what He went through to give us salvation, it will change us.

I remember seeing a documentary about southern California gangs a while back. There was a story of one family that really touched me. A single mother had alreayd lost one son to gang violence. She had another boy who was still in high-school. She broke her back, worked multiple jobs, and always made sure she was there for him. She poured herself into him and his future; she poured herself into his freedom from that gang-infested area and that gang-corrupted way of life. The son was extremely driven. He was an A student and he was determined to graduate and go on to college. Why? Did he do those things to earn his mother's good graces? Did he do those things so that she would care? No. He was driven and motivated because he saw that she already did care. He saw her sacrifice for him. She didn't have to demand anything from him. He was so moved by his mother's love and sacrifice that he would not let a single drop of her sweat be wasted.

That is how, by the Spirit, we can be freely justified and forgiven and accepted by grace alone, apart from our works, and yet be utterly driven to the ends of the earth to serve the One who bought us.

It's Not About Having it Right

This is from an email.  I thought it might be worth posting.  A person is confused about the command to "repent and believe" and the idea that the Gospel isn't about "getting it right" but about Jesus getting it right for us, which we passively rely on as a gift.

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...in the context you describe with Peter's preaching, you can think of repentance there as a change in the person's attitude toward the idea that they can save themselves. Notice that I did not say it means that I completely cease from ever trying to save myself by my own efforts. [All of us constantly fall back into it, but when we realize it we don't have to cognitively *do* something.  The realization is what brings us running back to Jesus.]

"Repenting and believing" is by definition *not* about "having it right." Back when I really struggled with this, there were two texts that really served as litmus tests for me. One was Romans 4:4-5 and the other Galatians 2:21.

"Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly..." (Romans 4:4-5)

See how Paul sets two ideas in complete contrast? There is the one working... and what he gets can't be called a "gift." When I get paid from my employer, I never say "Oh, thanks! You are so generous and gracious!" In complete contrast is the one who "does *not* work but believes in him..." Paul is saying that believing in "him who justifies the ungodly" is non-effort, is not about having it right but is relying upon the promise of "Him who justifies the ungodly." Paul is using the example of Abraham. God promised Abraham, "I will do this." Abraham relied on him to carry it out. Period.

Did Abraham do that perfectly? Nope. Paul brings up that in, I think, Galatians 3-4. That is what the whole deal about Sarah versus Hagar is. Do you remember the story? Years after God promised Abraham that he would have a son and be the "father of many nations," still nothing happened. So Sarah gave Abraham her handmaid, Hagar. Maybe they thought, "well... if we're supposed to have a son, maybe we should help God out and find a way to do it ourselves." So, Abraham impregnated Hagar and she had his son Ishmael. But that was not the son that God promised Abraham. Isaac came later, through his wife Sarah, just like God promised. What Paul does in that passage is contrasts Hagar and Sarah and their sons, one the product of human effort and the other the product of "promise." The first is "let's try to do it and get it right," and the second is, "God promised, so I'm going to rely on His grace."

That is like all of us. The Christian life is not about avoiding sin (though obviously we don't want to just run around doing things our Best Friend hates). If anything, it is about constantly realizing the ways that we are trying to "have it right", dropping that, and running back to Jesus.  [It is often not our "sin" that comes between us and Jesus but our supposed "goodness."]

Galatians 2:21 is the same idea:

"I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness [right-ness] comes through the Law, then Christ died for no reason."

Paul is simply saying this: if dotting the i's and crossing the t's does anything to get you anywhere at all, *in any way at all*, then Jesus came down here and died in vain.

[I do not address the issue of rewards or the place of obedience which are, of course, important.  I'm merely pointing out that it is not about "having it right."  Even in our Gospel-obedience, it is not about getting it right or getting a good grade or preventing certain bad things from happening.  It is about loving our God.]