July 11, 2018 — If by God's grace I am fully loved by God, why do I keep messing up and does that really matter?
Nobody starts out as a heretic. The Welsh monk Pelagius (360-418 A.D.) had a point when he was concerned above all else with right conduct. He was especially hostile to what centuries later the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would define as “cheap grace” (that is, the tendency to use the gift of God’s grace as a free pass or license for life on our own terms and in rebellion to God). Under this view of grace, one would say, “Live as you like today, say a quick prayer of confession in the morning and all will be well!” The Apostle Paul confronted this erroneous view of grace when he wrote to the church in Rome: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2).
According to theologian and author R.C. Sproul, “Pelagius was not opposed to grace, only to the idea that grace was necessary for obedience.” In somewhat lofty tones, Pelagius wrote: “Whenever I am called upon to speak upon moral training and the course of holy living, I am accustomed first to display the power and quality of human nature and show what it is able to accomplish, and then from this to incite the mind of the hearer to (some) forms of virtue…” Pelagius espoused that once you are brought into a relationship with God through His grace then you are very much on your own to make right decisions and indeed there is no reason why you should not consistently make faultless and good decisions. All this implies, of course, that if you are extremely talented and self-disciplined and highly-motivated, you don’t need the onward grace of God in your life at all.
So, let me ask you: How is that working out for you? Yes, God’s grace has brought me into relationship with Him, through Jesus, but this does not guarantee that I am always going to get it right. Personally speaking, my progress is fitful; often it feels like the children’s game of “Chutes and Ladders,” taking one step forward and then sliding back several steps.
St. Augustine, a philosopher and theologian who was a contemporary of Pelagius, took him on! Augustine strongly argued that living as we do in a seriously fallen world, we, as a humanity, have a seriously impaired moral ability. What Augustine saw clearly was that whilst the will, or the faculty, for us to choose remained intact (that is, we are still free in the sense that we can choose what we want to choose), our choices are deeply influenced by the broken nature of the world. We are not playing on a level playing field. And therefore, given human nature and the state of the world, the only way that true freedom and heart transformation could be restored to us would be through God’s supernatural and ongoing work of grace in our souls.
Paul had put it this way when he wrote to the church in Rome: “For all have sinned; all fall short of God's glorious standard.” (Romans 3:23; emphasis mine). To the church meeting in Corinth, he wrote: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Did you catch the verb tense? He didn’t say “ have been” transformed but “are being” transformed. Theologian, pastor and author Francis Schaeffer wrote, “True spirituality consists in living every moment by the grace of Jesus Christ.”
The mercy of God is more than simply the action of God’s forgiveness. To accept God’s mercy is to find God in our souls and Christ in our flesh — fighting for us, leading us and shaping us. And if we fall, if we take a wrong turn (which we all will), and we come back to the mercy of God (which is always by His lively encouragement and at His open invitation), we are changed. Repentance, after all, means “a change of heart.” In this process of falling and allowing God to pick us back up again is where transformation of the heart happens.
In Jesus’ time, the religious authorities asked for more and more obedience from the people. Jesus, as theologian and author John Stott reminds us, is inviting us all into a deeper and deeper obedience. Religiosity is content with an external and formal obedience, a rigid conformity to the letter of the law; Jesus teaches us that God’s demands are more radical than this. The righteousness which is pleasing to God is a deeper, inward righteousness of mind and motive. It was a new heart of righteousness which the Old Testament prophets foresaw as one of the blessings of the Messianic age. The Lord declared, through Jeremiah, “I will put My law within them and I will write it upon their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:33). How would He accomplish this? “I [the Lord] will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes...” (Ezekiel 36:27).
Raniero Cantalamessa, an Italian Catholic priest who is Preacher to the Papal Household, wrote, “The same change that falling in love creates in human life and in the relationship between two people is created by the coming of the Holy Spirit in the relationship between God and man.” And from this love flows a new and internal desire to live our lives differently — to love our neighbor even as we love ourselves. This is where we are caught in the jet stream of the Holy Spirit, propelled into action by His implanted word, by His grace and by His mercy.
In John Bunyan’s classic allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, the character Christian sees water being poured onto a fire that is burning against a wall. He fears that the work of God’s grace in his own life is being extinguished by the devil. “But,” we are told, “his wonder grew when he saw how the flames burned higher and hotter. He was then shown the other side of the wall where he saw a man with a vessel of oil in his hand of which he did continually cast, but secretly into the fire. This, it was explained to him, is Jesus who continually with the oil of His grace maintains the work already begun in the heart.”
Ultimately, the Cross is the supreme symbol of the tender and merciful, fierce and jealous, permanent and unquenchable love of Jesus Christ for you — the love that is above all loves. At the Cross, His law is written on our hearts and illuminated by the Spirit, and we find ourselves living deeply in love. We stand before God in the righteousness of Jesus. When we fail, which we will, there is mercy that enables us to walk in the fruit of repentance — the fruit of a changed heart — where we are supernaturally changed in His image from the inside out.
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