Friday, February 27, 2015


                Let me confess up front that I am a rules guy. All of my life I have tried to be responsible and obedient. I was a compliant child at home and at school. I was always bothered by others who seemed to pay no attention to the rules. In many ways, that is still true. I can become very judgmental of others who seem to disregard the rules.

                God began to do a work in me when I went to college. He began to challenge my legalism. For the first time in my life, I encountered people who were genuinely committed to Christ, yet applied their faith in ways different from mine. They were much freer and less bound by rules. For the first time, I began to struggle with what it means to live by faith under grace.

                Our small group is studying Romans. At the heart of Romans is the debate between Grace and the Law. The audience that Paul was writing to were staunch legalists. They believed in the Law and sought to conform to it. As new Christians, they were struggling with how the Law and God’s Grace worked together. They saw their standing before God as dependent upon their conformity to the Law. Paul forcefully argued that our righteousness before God comes by faith in God and not by adherence to the Law. Paul saw the Law as the means of awakening us to our sin, but the Law is powerless to free us from our sin.

                My personal struggle has been complicated by my daily devotions. I have committed to reading the Bible through in a year. The reading guide that I am using currently has me reading Leviticus. The whole of Leviticus is an outline of God’s laws for the people of Israel. This is clean and this is unclean. This is acceptable and this is unacceptable. I understand the overarching reason for the Law; to set Israel apart as the unique people of God, holy to Him. But, as I read Leviticus, I am struck by the black and white nature of the Law. There seems to be little or no grace. The penalties for breaking the law are severe, and at times seemingly excessive.

                As severe as the Old Testament law seems, it does offer a clear, black and white boundary about what is right and what is wrong. Here in lies the allure of legalism. In our increasingly secular world, which works very hard to blur the lines of right and wrong, or to eliminate them altogether, it is enticing to embrace a clear set of rules. Legalism seems to eliminate the ambiguity.

                Most people, if not all, deep down, have a love/hate relationship with rules. We all want maximum freedom for ourselves and clear boundaries for others. We desire to blur the lines of right and wrong when they are applied to us personally. We are willing to do this for others in theory. But in practice, we apply our sense of right and wrong to others, and are offended when they violate our standard.

                Now let’s mix in the concept of grace. By definition, grace is receiving something that I do not deserve. Grace is not an obligation, it is a gift. The Bible tells us that our salvation in Christ is an act of grace from God.  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) God has extended his grace to us through Jesus Christ. When we accept this amazing gift, through faith, we enter into a right relationship with God for all of eternity. Then something incongruous happens; we slip back into legalism. This is the very thing Paul was combating in Romans.

                Here is how it works. We accept the free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus. Then we live our lives trying to earn it, by keeping a set of rules. We judge other people’s walk with Christ based on our particular set of rules, just as the Pharisees did to Jesus. We say that we live by grace, but actually we live by law. Why? Because it is a whole lot easier.

                The demands of grace are hard. It requires us to be humble and generous. We must deal graciously with others who see things differently than we do. Grace demands that we leave some things in the realm of gray; matters of conscience. It means that we give our time, energy and resources to God freely, not expecting anything in return. Grace makes it clear that in no way is God obligated to us, yet in His great love, He showers us freely with his blessings. When we fully embrace grace, we are truly free to love God and our fellow man without strings attached.

                Legalism, on the other hand, is easy. Legalism sets clear, black and white boundaries. It gives us a spiritual checklist, by which we can measure our progress. Legalism allows us to hold others accountable and to hold God accountable. Legalism gives us the right to judge other people’s actions. Legalism allows us to demand that God act toward us in prescribed ways. But, legalism is a trap. It robs us of our freedom in Christ and fills us with uncertainty and disappointment. It leads to arrogance, bitterness, anger and discontent.

                Bottom line, legalism feeds into our desire to be in control; to be our own master. Legalism offers black and white answers. Legalism fosters an attitude of elitism. Grace requires letting go of control, and  trusting in the goodness and power of God through Christ Jesus. Grace does not negate right and wrong, but it responds to right and wrong with compassion. Grace fosters an attitude of humility. Legalism is easy, but it leads to death. Grace is hard, but it leads to life.

                Lest you think that legalism is limited to religious people, there are just as many secular legalists as religious; maybe more.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.
 Proverbs 16:25

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6:23


Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Philippians 3:7-11
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

                I am a doer. I am not a type “A” personality or the Energizer Bunny who has to always be on the go. But, I am a hands-on, do-it-myself person. I realized a while ago that I am at my best when I have a project to work on. I use my time the best when I have a tangible goal ahead of me to work toward; whether that is writing a sermon, preparing a Bible study, or working on a project in my woodshop. When I want to express my love to someone, I usually do it in some tangible way. It may be buying a gift or creating something unique in my workshop. I tend to speak more with my actions then my words.

                I have a much harder time just “being.” If I am not “doing”, it is easy for me to withdrawn into my private world. It may seem strange to you that someone whose occupation requires the crafting of words has a hard time expressing himself in words, but that is me. It is far easier for me to write words than speak them. It is easier for me to preach a message then hold an in-depth conversation.

                I have long struggled with expressing my faith through doing. I fully understand that we are saved by grace and not by works. Yet, I have often put much more emphasis in my life on doing something for Christ, rather than being with Christ. Spiritually, I am far more like Martha, rushing around doing things to please Jesus, rather than Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet and enjoying his presence.

                There is an old hymn titled “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, that has the following chorus. “Just a closer walk with thee. Grant it Jesus, is my plea. Daily walking close to Thee. Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.” Growing up in church, I have often sung that song. I am afraid that I have not always lived it. Recently, through some of my reading and through some significant events in my life, I have been drawn back to this idea of developing an intimate walk with Jesus. I have been praying that I would stay close the Him each day. I have been praying for a heart that desires to know Jesus more for who He is, rather than for what He can do for me.

                One of the barriers to this quest is much of our current language of worship. Many of the worship songs we sing today sound like love songs between a man and a woman. I am not saying these songs are inappropriate, but they do, at times, make me feel uncomfortable. Men tend to share life with other men through actions; by doing things together. Women are far more comfortable sharing life through words and outward expressions of affection.

                I experienced an example of this just the other night. We had a couple over to our house for dinner. We had a delightful time together. When it was time to leave, the wife said “we love you” and gave my wife a big hug. The husband, shook my hand and said “thanks for a great evening.”

                The Gospels say that when Jesus selected the twelve, He selected them to be with Him; to share life with Him. These were rugged men, who expressed themselves through doing. For three years, they followed Jesus wherever He went. They shared all the ups and downs, all the challenges of being constantly on the move.  I am fairly confident that they didn't sit around and talk about how beautiful Jesus was, or that they longed for His embrace. Yet, these men gave their lives for Jesus.

                I am still trying to learn what it means for me to walk with Jesus daily. I want to learn to share life with Jesus the way the disciples did. I want to get to the place where Paul was, when he wrote that his highest goal was to know Jesus.

                I will always be a “doer.” But, I want to offer my doing as a response to Christ’s love for me and as an expression of my love for Christ. I don’t want my doing to be an effort to gain Christ’s attention or to earn His favor. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Our Fickle Hearts

                In the book of Exodus, we read about Israel’s escape from Egypt and its wandering in the wilderness. In Exodus 24, Moses presents God’s covenant to the people and they declare their acceptance of it. God has already demonstrated his power and presence to the people. They were overwhelmed by God’s glory, so much so that they begged Moses to speak to God on their behalf. They were afraid to approach the glory of God. You would think that they had enough evidence of the reality of God to follow Him wholeheartedly the rest of their days.

                Then we come to Exodus 32. God had called Moses up on the mountain to speak directly with him. Moses was absent from the camp for a long time and the people became restless. They came to Aaron and demanded that he give them new gods to follow, because it seemed like Moses had abandoned them. So Aaron makes a golden calf and the people begin to worship it, instead of God. Just as this is all taking place, Moses returns and the wrath of God breaks out against the people. In the face of God’s anger, the people repent and return to God.

                As I read this story, I wondered how the people of Israel could be so blind. I wondered why they would turn back to idols, when they had experienced the power of the Living God in their lives. As I reflected upon this, I realized that we are just like the Israelites. We mimic their experience, on a smaller scale, regularly. We regularly shift our focus from the intangible to the tangible, from the eternal to the temporal.

                We gather together on Sunday morning for a time of worship. We sing songs of praise to God, we pray for His blessing and intervention in our lives, we listen to His word. We are often moved within our soul. In those sacred moments, we determine to live our lives for Christ. Then Monday comes. We reenter our normal routine of life, and without even noticing it, we begin worshiping the golden calf. It may be in the form of money or power or prestige. We quickly forget our experience of corporate worship in God’s presence. We become pragmatic and practical, and enter the rat race of chasing after false gods.

                I have intentionally stated this in very black and white terms. I know that it is not that simple, and that our spiritual pendulum may not swing quite so far. But, I was made aware of how easily I can slip away from Christ and be enticed by the golden calves of this world. I am reminded that I must be intentional about walking with Christ on a day by day basis. I am reminded of how quickly I can put my trust in tangible things rather than in Christ.

                Our defense against the golden calf is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We need to reconnect with Him daily, even multiple times each day. We cannot rest on past experience. Each day we must renew our commitment to Christ, because he is the source of our life.

Hebrews 12:1-3
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.

                Yesterday my family gathered to say goodbye to Howard, my father-in-law. It was a bittersweet time, as we connected with people we had not seen in 30 years. There were many stories about Howard. There was laughter and tears. Howard was 82 and had lived a full life. It was a hard day and a good day.

                Today, we will gather to say goodbye to Eric, a young man from our church. It will be a hard day. There will be many tears and I hope some laughter as well. People will share stories about Eric, and seek to comfort his family. From our perspective, Eric’s life was cut short. He was only 43.

                The circumstances of these two deaths are very different. Howard’s death was sudden and unanticipated. Eric had battled cancer for almost two years. Even though the events leading to their deaths were very different, there is one reality that binds them together. The end of the story is not the end of the story. Both Howard and Eric were believers in Jesus Christ. They both lived an active faith. And they both are now at home with the Lord, experiencing their eternal reward.

                Paul tells us that we can face these experiences with a hope that transcends our grief and pain. For many people, death is a dark curtain that hides the future. They are afraid that, when that curtain is parted, there will be nothing on the other side. But those of us who have put our faith in Jesus Christ have a different perspective. The end of our life here on earth is not the end of our life.

                When Jesus went to the funeral of Lazarus, he gave Martha words of hope to hold onto.  Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26) What we think of as the end of the story is not the end of the story.

                As Jesus was preparing his disciples for his own death, he gave them words of hope and assurance. "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3)

                I do not know what it will be like when I walk through the curtain of death. I  cannot truly imagine what it means to be in the Lord’s presence. But there are a few things that I hold onto as I face the reality of death.

- When the time comes, Jesus will be there to walk with me through that curtain.

- When the time comes, my earthly body will be transformed into a heavenly body.

- When that time comes, I will be reunited with those who have gone before me.

- When that time comes, it will all make sense.

                Until that time, we live in the hope of the resurrection and rest in the unfailing promises of God. Because, the end of our story on earth is not the end of our story, when we know the end of the story.