Not Here, Well Maybe

The church is filled with perfect people.

Some churches are full of sin but not mine.

At my church we make sure that we protect against those type of people.

Our pastor is an example of a very righteous person.

We are a group of people who have done away with our sinful behaviors and follow the Lord.

Everybody is friendly in my church, takes care of one another and accepts everyone.

Which of these statements do you believe? Amazingly, these are actual statements which I have heard people make regarding their congregation. Add to these statements the perceptions that some people have from the outside. An observer would come to the conclusion that the church is a place where sin does not exist. This conclusion could not be any farther from the truth. The church is as full of sin as any other group in the world.

Since the church consists of humans, the church is going to have sin. We are reminded in the letter to the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, NIV). When a person becomes a member of a congregation, either formally or informally, this reality stated in Scripture does not change. This being the case, there is going to be sin in the church. In fact, one of the many sins is lying about this truth.

Honestly, I do not think that anyone truly believes that the church is without sin. Yet a lot of people in congregations everywhere want to downplay or deny this truth in an attempt to present a better image to those outside the walls. I am not sure if they feel that this will cause others to desire to join the congregation or if it is a case of them wanting to show they are better than what is in the world. Either way, this image of a sin-free church does more damage for the ministries of the Lord than it could ever benefit.

Instead of trying to state that the church is a place where sin does not exist, we should actually be sharing a more important message. The message of the church should be that it is a place where forgiveness is given unconditionally. After all, this is the message that Jesus Christ gave over and over again in his actions and teachings. This is the message which the apostle Paul declared as he and others fulfilled Christ’s commandment to go into the world.

Within the church there are lies, hatred, bigotry, hypocrisy, theft, divisions, sexual misconduct, and all other sinful behaviors witnessed in everyday life in a multitude of places. Sinners exist within the church. More importantly though, within the church there is forgiveness, love, grace, restoration, healing, support, encouragement and acceptance. These are the traits which the church should show as it strives to demonstrate to the world an alternative to sin.

Sin exists in the church at the same level it does anywhere else but here it is always forgiven and reconciliation is possible.

Amazing Grace

Grace is a word that is thrown around in Christian circles all the time. The explanation of this word often seems to elude individuals. Most Christians understand that this has to do with God’s gift and usually they associate it with God’s salvific act. To complicate matters, the word is used to refer to a prayer which is said at meal times. Yet this is one of the most important concepts for Christians to understand because it is the very heart of God’s relationship with humanity.

In Western Christian theology, grace has been defined, not as a created substance of any kind, but as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it”, “Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” It is understood by Christians to be a spontaneous gift from God to people “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved” – that takes the form of divine favor, love, clemency, and a share in the divine life of God.

Wikipedia article

Grace is the gift given to all humanity because of God’s great love for everyone. As mentioned in the above quote, grace is not earned. We are only receivers of grace. Grace is given to us by God before we are even aware of our need for grace. This is an action of God, not humanity. The reason we struggle to understand grace is the very fact that it is not an act by humans. Grace runs contrary to our human behaviors. It is unexpected because of the sense that it is so foreign to our experiences in life.

God’s creation of humans came from the very nature of God. In 1 John 4:7, the writer states at the end of the verse, “because God is love.” This statement is the ultimate definition of God (I will cover this in another post). Since God is love, we were created from and in love. This love manifests itself in a variety of ways throughout creation and the human experience. Stories found throughout the Bible give evidence to this love. Grace is a manifestation of the love of God.

Since grace is God-initiated, God-given, and God-centered, humans have no control over it. Humans have no right to state who the receivers of grace might be. We have no power to prevent it from being given. There is no controlling grace. Anyone who attempts to stand in the way of God’s grace is doomed to failure.

This is what makes grace so amazing… God gives God’s grace to EVERYONE not because of who they are or what they have done but often in spite of both those realities. Talk about leveling the playing field, God’s grace clearly makes all of us equal because all of us need it and no one owns it.

What Must I Do

What must I do?

This question is often asked by someone who is trying to earn something or be allowed something. In the context of a classroom setting, the question is usually asked by a student when speaking with the teacher of a course in an attempt to determine how to achieve a certain grade. If the question is asked in a work setting, the employee may be wanting a pay raise or a promotion. When the question is raised in a faith setting, the one asking is usually seeking favor or a reward from a deity. An example of this is found in the Gospel of Mark.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mark 10:17

This approach is based on the understanding that works earn favor with God and thus rewards. Humans have come to believe that rewards and punishments meted out by a deity or deities is the way to understand how life is experienced. If you have done something pleasing for (fill in here the name of a god or gods of your choice) then you will be rewarded in such ways as a bountiful crop, wealth, fame, good health, a supportive spouse, a wonderful house, and the list can go on based on desires. Naturally, the opposite is true. If you cause displeasure then you will be punished with natural disasters, poverty, hunger, illness, hatred, abandonment, and again the list can grow. This provides answers to two questions, “How did that person acquire that?” and “Why did this happen to me?” The viewpoint is reinforced by our encounters with other humans and their responses to us.

In theology this viewpoint is often summarized in the phrase, works-based faith. Throughout the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures this was the guiding force which led to rules being implemented to aid individuals in navigating away from displeasing the gods and toward bringing pleasure to the gods.

Faith alone

Jesus in his teachings gave us a new understanding which the Apostle Paul would spend most of his life trying to help people understand. This new understanding is that finding favor with God has NOTHING to do with our works but instead with our belief in the relationship we have with God.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Mark 10:27

Jesus was responding to the question quoted above. After Jesus gave the man a task which he was unwilling to complete, the man went away feeling defeated and unable to gain the reward which he sought. Seeing and hearing the interaction between the man and Jesus, the disciples also felt it would be impossible for them to receive salvation. Jesus’ response basically says that they are correct in their observation yet adds the “but” which changes the perspective and upends a whole way of thinking.

The first thing to note here is that the “doer” has changed here. Instead of the person doing what it takes to make something possible, God is the one who makes something possible. In this particular situation it is salvation. Now the focus is on God and not on the person.

The truth is that no one has to earn God’s favor. Every person already has God’s favor. Both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Testament of the New Covenant, the reader/hearer is told of the love which God has for each creature that God created. This love was present even before the person came into existence. Our works, positive or negative, cannot take this love, this favor away from us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Works are not the way we receive God’s love and favor because they have already been freely given to us. (This is the concept of grace which I will discuss in a future post.) We need to change the way in which we think. Instead of thinking about how I can achieve the reward of God, I need to realize that I already have it because God has already given to it to me. I need to believe this is true. As Paul states the idea:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9

A different way to live

Living by faith changes what we do and why we do it. We are no longer living a performance-based life. Our worth, our success, our purpose is not based on the work that we do. (Sorry to those with a true Puritan background.) Instead, all these items find their basis in the fact that we are favored, loved, by God. We live in a manner which shows we believe this fact.

Our belief in this fact leads us to respond, a response of gratitude. Living a life of gratitude obtained by our faith directs our actions. We care for the well-being of other individuals not because it will earn us anything from God but a way is available for us to express our gratitude to God. We give of our time, money, and skills not because it earns us anything but because the giving is an act of gratitude. We strive to follow Jesus’ teachings and to learn more about them as an expression of gratitude not to gain some reward.

The answer

I hope that by now you have gained understanding into the first question which started this post. The answer is NOTHING. There is nothing you must do. You already have the favor of God and all the rewards which God’s love provides. Anything which you do you are doing as a response to living in God’s favor.