Ah, grace. At once a solid cornerstone and as slippery as an eel. Just when you think you have a handle on it, it slips through your hands and hits you in the back of the head all at once. 

Some time ago I was reading a well-known Christian leader’s blog, and once a week he would put up some funny or interesting video that was largely unrelated to the usual fare of heavy topics such as sin and salvation. In this case it was a video of Eric Clapton performing some mind-blowing guitar solo during a concert.

I enjoyed the video but then scrolled down and started reading some of the comments. Now, in case you don’t know, there are few places in the vast interweb as un-grace-full as the comments sections of Christian blogs. I should have known better, but there I was reading the comments. 

One person commented something along the lines of “Why would you put up a video of this unbeliever performing this song that almost certainly glorifies sin? How can watching this video glorify God in any way?” Clearly the commenter was disappointed by what he or she perceived to be a compromise, a slipping of standards; and, I suppose, he might have a point. Many Christians struggle with similar feelings of unease when dealing with a wider culture that is so comfortable with sin; and for those in the more conservative circles of Christianity, that unease extends to Christian groups that are any less conservative than themselves.

The author of the blog actually responded to this person by saying that he posts videos like this because he believes in common grace. (Apparently this sort of interaction happened so often that he eventually just made a post about it). Common grace encompasses all the grace that God showers upon humanity in general; Grace Guy has a page about it right here.

Something about this blogger’s response and demeanor gave me a glimpse of a better way, a more grace-filled, generous stance towards wider culture. Something other than suspicion and negativity couched in the language of commitment to truth. In short, permission to open-heartedly receive and enjoy the grace inherent in the cultural and creative expressions of humanity, even while rejecting those aspects which are sinful.

For me, common grace was a gateway: it opened up entire landscapes of worship, gave me permission to rejoice in, and be grateful for, a whole swath of human expression. In some circles of Christianity, there is a real reticence to celebrate anything that does not expressly state the glorification of God as its purpose. While the intention here may be noble, the result can be a stunted, suspicious spirit. I sometimes think of it as a goblin spirit. A hunched over, sneering, lecherous spirit, stealing the joy out of so much of life, all while supposedly representing the God of grace. 

It is a fearsome reality that grace can rattle around in our songs, creeds, and conversations without the actual substance and essence of grace truly seeping down deep into the nooks and crannies of our hearts - our innermost thoughts and affections.

Understanding common grace helped me to bridge the gulf that I often felt between myself and the wider culture of an unbelieving world. As I experienced good gifts that God has given all of us, I discovered a profound and precious unity with the rest of humankind. A common ground from which we could all stand and enjoy a sunset, a hockey game, a Ferrari, a guitar solo, a cheeseburger.

The difference in my case, as with any Christian, is that my enjoyment bubbles up in praise to the God who gives and allows these good things, who gives his creatures gifts of talent and ability that amaze us. These things are meant to result in praise for God, even if unbelievers mistakenly take credit or even twist them into something ugly. 

Similarly, a generous stance towards those with different convictions from mine gives me the ability, the permission, to learn from them without being threatened or fearful. One of the great dangers for conservative groups is growing insular (incestuous is too strong a word but does convey the idea).

When I first met grace, she kicked open the door and knocked me to the floor. Grace is no feather-footed, hand-holding, sweet-talking old lady. She has power and comes in power, doing what in my sin and weakness I cannot - breathing life into my dead soul - with the force of a tsunami and the gentleness of a butterfly’s flight all at once. This whole website exists because of it. 

At the same time, this thing we call common grace is always at work in the world as well. It is less dramatic perhaps, but more pervasive. I wouldn’t want anyone to go on refusing to give God glory for things that he rightly and ultimately deserves credit for, whether it is Usain Bolt’s incredible speed, the taste of a fine wine, or the international space station. 

Those of us who have experienced God’s saving grace have been given the lenses through which we can properly see the divine roots of so much that we encounter and enjoy in our daily lives. And further, our entire stance towards culture and groups with which we disagree can be informed by grace to make us more generous, open-hearted, and winsome. 

- Philip Cotnoir
His Blog
I was chatting with a friend about our need for Grace in our daily life, and how stuff creeps in that takes away our joy in Christ.

GraceGuy : There's often a gap in what we know in our head about spiritual life and where our hearts are at.

GraceGuy's wise friend Corina : That gap is the perfect spot where stubbornness and pride hang out. They have wild parties and invite disobedience and self-deity to come. Everyone gets drunk and someone ends up crying in the bathroom

So true.
It is fascinating for me to read Christ's interactions with different individuals in the Gospel account. He showed a remarkable ordered pattern of 'Connecting - Showing Grace - Dispensing Truth' with most people. 

And yet, there remained a group where he skipped over the 'Connection - Grace' part and went consistently straight to the Truth part: the Pharisees.

The religious establishment of the time, the Pharisees were the ones who made the link between the people of Israel and God. But they had corrupted that calling with the filth of pride.

Jesus did not show any Grace to them. On the contrary, he responded to their haughty attitude with harsh accusations and a telling portrait of who they really were.

I have gathered all the references in the Gospels to that particular group.

I wanted to know :
- What did the Pharisees themselves consider important ?
- How did they view others ?
- How were they viewed by Christ ?

The result is the study below where I have answered the three questions with verses in the order in which they appear. And a hat tip to Zac Poonen for his inspired and inspiring work in that area.

It breaks my heart to see that things have not changed since Jesus' time. I can see the same characteristics in myself first and in many profess the name of Christ.

My desire in this study on Pharisees is not to condemn a group that is long gone and already judged by the only Judge. It is to warn me about what I need to be careful of, lest the tide of my pride and moralism sweep me away.

The only cure to the very real and current pharisaic disease is one simple thing: Humility.

Study: The biblical characteristics of Pharisees (pdf)

Update: My definition of 'legalism'
They walk among us, they greet us on Sunday mornings, they wear crosses on their necks, they have fishes on their cars.

They believe they have cornered the Truth.
The are quick to clamor the good they have done.
They have a strong opinion on people they do not know, or seek to know.
They stay away from 'bad' people.
They are quick to find what is 'wrong' with others and seek to catch them in it, adding that they would never have done the wrongs that others did.
They cowardly murmur gossip about others.
They assume the worst about others and accuse them.
They judge others for not doing something that they do, or believing something differently than they do
They are self-righteous .
They abuse God's name for their purposes and their arguments.
They skew the Word to their advantage.
They are easily offended.
They enjoy talking about their spiritual accomplishments.
They give themselves the credit for God's work and God's grace.
They 'exhort' and 'console' those in difficulty simply by telling them : 'just pray' or 'read your Bible' or 'God is in control' or 'search the sin in your life'.

They preach judgement and hate from the pulpit or in their homes.
They picket funerals and events.
They denigrate those of different faiths.

They are the embodiment of everything Christ came to destroy.
They are pride incarnate.
They are a rampant disease in the 'Christian' movement, distorting Christ's message by presenting the world a moral and legalistic gospel.
They often call themselves Christians.
They are Pharisees. 
And I was one of them.
It is always fascinating to me that King David was called a 'man after God's own heart' (Acts 13:22). It is a unique title given to just one person in  Scripture.

In my studies of verses that linked Truth and Grace together, I was amazed that most of those verses were from David and his son Solomon. He understood God's intricate nature and the delicate balance of Truth and Grace, and then passed that learning on to his wise son.

David characterized God (Ps 89:14) and Solomon exhorted us to have it characterize ourselves (Pr 3:3). Solomon wrote that atonement comes from it (Pr 16:6). Both have said it was what preserves them (Ps 61:7 and Pr 20:28). It was the source of David's praise (Ps 138:2). And finally, when David blessed others (in especially difficult circumstances , he wished them Mercy and Truth (2 Sam 15:20).

What an example. They have not been perfect - far from it. But they have understood this particular aspect of God that was later reflected in Christ (John 1:14, 17). 
Following part 1, I have derived a model from all the verses referencing both concepts in the Word. It remains fascinating to me that God has merged these seemingly opposing notions together in one wondrous package.

I have taken the root words of truth (emet in Hebrew and alētheias in Greek) as well as the ones for Grace and found the instances in the Bible that relate the two. 

I wanted to discover:
- How are they related ?
- In what context ?
- What do they describe ?
- Is there a relationship involved ?
- Can this be applied to me ?

These questions helped me create this model. You may find translated words for truth that share it's root (like righteousness, justice, faithfulness, knowledge...). The same for Grace (mercy, compassion).

Enjoy the model.

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We often have the misconceived notion that God was a 'God of Truth or Justice' in the Old Testament and a 'God of Grace' in the New; as if he transformed in the 400 years between Malachi and Matthew. As such, we have often put in contrast Truth and Grace, as if they were opposed.  

Grace and Truth are actually complementary, not opposing, forces, interacting to form a whole greater than either separate part; in effect, a dynamic system. Everything God does in the Bible has both aspects, from his dealings with the fathers of faith, to the nation of Israel, to Christ, to us. Truth shows the standard and Grace helps us get there. Grace and Truth are two sides to the same coin. Randy Alcorn calls it the 'two wings on a bird'. 

In fact, Psalm 85:10, the author writes about this intricate, unique and special relationship: Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed.

Here's how they are complimentary:
- Truth identifies the fault, Grace covers it
- Truth establishes God's holiness, Grace establishes God's love
- Truth declares the absolute, Grace reconciles me with it
- Truth is the road to follow, Grace is the transportation
- Truth gives the need for God, Grace gives the hope and the way to God through Christ
- Truth is the standard, Grace is the relationship
- Truth sends the judgement, Grace provides the shelter
- Truth hates the sin, Grace loves the sinner
- Truth is the 'what i say and live', Grace is the 'how I say and live'
- Truth is the content, Grace is the format
- Truth is the words, Grace is the tone
- Truth demands a sacrifice, Grace provides it
- Truth holds up the mirror and shows one clothed in sin, Grace changes the reflection and shows one clothed on Christ
- Truth shows us the right choice, Grace gives us the freedom to choose, and forgives us when the choice is wrong
- Truth does not shy away from announcing itself with conviction, Grace says it with love
- Truth condemns the sinner because of his sin, Grace saves the repentant sinner despite his sin 
Grace and Truth truly have embraced.
A friend of mine introduced me to Brennan Manning. Since yesterday (April 12th, 2013), he is dancing with his Maker. His last book was untitled 'All is Grace' - a title I obviously was interested in.

The following is a quote from that last book posted by this friend of mine. Mr Manning certainly understood the scandal that is God's Grace.

"My life is a witness to vulgar grace -- a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wage as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party, no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief's request -- "Please, remember me" -- and assures him, "You bet!"...This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. 

It works without asking anything of us. It's not cheap. It's free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try and find something or someone that it cannot cover. Grace is enough...

Sin and forgiveness and falling and getting back up and losing the pearl of great price in the couch cushions but then finding it again, and again, and again? Those are the stumbling steps to becoming Real, the only script that's really worth following in this world or the one that's coming. Some may be offended by this ragamuffin memoir, a tale told by quite possibly the repeat of all repeat prodigals. Some might even go so far as to call it ugly. But you see that doesn't matter, because once you are Real you can't be ugly except to people who don't understand...that yes, all is grace. It is enough. And it's beautiful." B.M.
This is a repost of 'My first Easter' composition. This remains what I have in my heart in contemplating the amazing Grace during this Easter season.

May it bless you.

---"Before we see the cross as something done for us, we need to see the cross as something done by us" 
- John Stott

I asked him to heal me and feed me without any intention to follow him
I tested his teachings and refused to let go of my beliefs
I expected him to liberate us from the Romans

I betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver
I broke bread with him at his last supper
I fled when the soldiers came to take him
I kissed him to show the soldiers who he was
I took him into custody and brought him before the high priest Caiaphus
I put him on an illegal trial with false witnesses
I brought him to the governor Pilate
I questioned him about the accusations
I brought him to Herod and returned him to Pilate
I let the crowd decide his fate and washed my hands of it
I wanted the liberation of a known murderer instead of his
I sentenced him to death to appease the crowd and my ego

I beat and flogged him multiple times with whips
I spat on him
I made a crown of thorns and placed it harshly on his head
I made him carry his cross up the mount and pushed him to the ground
I put his hands on the cross and nailed him to it
I put his feet together on the wooden block at the base of the cross and nailed them to it
I lifted the cross and slipped it in the hole
I divided his clothes and cast lots for it
I placed a sign above his head 
I give him vinegar to drink
I pierced his side and saw blood and water spill out
I looked on approvingly, content of his death
I mocked his lack of power, even while I was hanging on a cross beside him
I denied ever knowing him, three times
I doubted his messianic claims
I heard him say ridiculous words to his supposed father
I saw him draw his last breath

I took the limp body off the cross
I placed it in a tomb and rolled a massive stone to close it
I guarded the tomb and prevented anyone from reaching it
I kept the empty tomb a secret
I persecuted those who thought he was risen

I was there that first Easter. My sins did all of this. And yet, through faith, His Grace covered me.

For the last months, we had been going through a very difficult time in our previous community of faith. Without going into too many details, God provided us with a front row seat to moralistic, unbiblical preaching as well as inviting on stage to experience first-hand a culture of judgment and lack of forgiveness.

I had written and erased dozens of blog posts pertaining to that time and the learning that it wrought. Some were vindictive, others were self-excusing, and most lacked the grace I am on a journey to learn and apply.

I believe God has provided the right words for me to express this ball of emotions and frustrations in a positive way.... from someone else's pen.

Thank you Jared C. Wilson for encouraging me to look to a Christ-filled future, where grace and truth live. Thank you for wrapping up my thoughts into a positive action plan for future use. And thank you Lord for providing these words to me.

Here is the original article, and below is a copy.

Cultivating a Gracious Climate in Your Church
Jared C. Wilson

As I’ve said before, a message of grace may attract people, but a culture of grace will keep them. What our churches need, not in exchange for a gospel message but as a witness to it, is a gospeled climate. But how do you get that? How do you develop in your church community a safe space to confess, be broken, be “not okay”? What are some ways to cultivate a climate of grace in your church?

1. Ordain totally qualified elders

We often do well to make sure our elders are solid in doctrine and confident in leadership, but too often we let the just-as-important qualifications slide. Or we skimp over them in assessment. Many churches fail their communities when they ordain the smartest guys in the building because those smart guys lack in qualities like gentleness, long-temperedness, or in shepherding their families well. Consider candidates who live in open, transparent ways, who distinguish themselves in hospitality and generosity, who have reputations for patience and meekness as much as intelligence and confidence. Examine their families. Do they lead their families graciously? Do their kids seem happy? Are their wives flourishing? There is a reason Paul puts the quality of husbanding and fathering at the top of his list.

This is one reason I am particularly fond of older men as elders, particularly men with adult or young adult children. A man may have prodigal children in spite of him, of course, not because of him, and so I want to take that into consideration, but if a man’s children are no longer walking with the Lord I want to know if it was because they grew up in an undisciplined, ungodly home or an overly disciplined, rigid, authoritarian, graceless home. I am not opposed to younger elders with younger children (I am one) or even single elders with none (Paul was one), but older men give you both the benefit of life experience and wisdom, and if they’ve been walking with Jesus for a while, they are often softer in heart than younger men. In short, what you want is not just elders who preach and teach well, but elders who love well, who shepherd well. You don’t want simply ruling elders, but gracious shepherds. Because whatever your elders are, your church will eventually be.

2. Go hard after doctrinal arrogance.

Most everyone who thinks they are right about a particular theological issue believes they came to it through growing in the Lord, not just reading information. Both the Calvinists and the Arminians in your church think that. Both the premillennialists and the postmillennialists think that. Most every one of us believes that we came to our particular view in the midst of our spiritual growth. (And we’re all right about that, sort of.) Thinking this way is only natural. But the danger in this thinking is equating our particular view with progressive sanctification. Doing so means believing that because I believe ______, I am more sanctified than you. The reason you don’t yet subscribe to my view on this matter is because you are more immature in your faith. Suddenly we are creating first and second class Christians in the community. And that’s gross.

Gently but firmly rebuke doctrinal arrogance and root it out wherever you find it. Factions develop over devotion to secondary matters quite easily if left unchecked. Be careful in preaching against sin that you don’t have “favorite” sins, pet sins to rail against. People guilty of such sins may be convicted and repent, but more often they do not hear the message of grace when their sin is repeatedly singled out but that your church is a safe place to have any sin but theirs. And there is an inverse danger in having favorite sins to preach against: it implicitly tells people who don’t struggle with that sin that they must be holy because they don’t struggle with it. By singling out certain sins for special treatment, you are helping everybody else embrace the arrogance of the Pharisee in the temple who was proud he wasn’t the tax collector.

Remind your people often that the demons have impeccable theology, that demons can be Calvinists and Arminians, millenniarians and amillenniarians.

3. Preach a whole gospel aimed at hearts, as well as minds

Preaching that takes the form more of lectures is great for creating information-glutted minds. Sometimes. But while every sermon should convey information — it should definitely teach — the purpose of a sermon is not primarily mind-informing but heart-transforming. Aim at the heart in two primary ways: 1) proclaim good news, not simply good advice, and 2) exult in your preaching. In other words, don’t just preach the text, as much as you are able, feel it. More often than not, churches don’t become passionate about what their pastors tell them to be passionate about but about what their pastors are evidently passionate about themselves. So if it’s clear from your preaching that what really fires you up is the imperatives of the Scriptures, and not the gospel indicatives, guess what? No matter how many times you tell your church to center on the gospel, they’re going to see that your zeal is reserved for the law.

And as you preach the gospel, preach to both prodigals and older brothers. Explain how the gospel is opposed to self-righteous religiosity. Entreat both “brothers” to embrace Christ, the legalist as well as the hedonist. Don’t give the impression that the gospel is just for those obvious sinners, the “lost” people, but for all people, including those in the pews every Sunday.

4. Establish limping leaders

From elders on down, don’t establish any leader who has no record of or reputation for humility. You will want to know if the leader has ever been broken, ever had his legs knocked out from under him. Don’t establish leaders who don’t walk with limps, because they often have no empathy for the broken, the hurting, the abused, or the penitent. Don’t empower any leader who has not confronted and wrestled with his own sin, who doesn’t demonstrate an ongoing humility about his sin and a grief over it. Leaders who do not personally know the scandal of grace set a climate in a church of gracelessness.

5. Promote hospitality, service, and generosity

What values, programs, initiatives do I most want to promote? The ones that are most conducive to closeness with each other and outwardness with the community. Church people don’t learn to be gracious with unchurched people if they are never in proximity with them. And often being in the same work environment doesn’t cut it. We want to facilitate and promote opportunities for growth that involve the opening of homes, the active service of people inside the church and out, and the giving away of money and stuff. Lots of things fit these bills, so you can get creative. But when church people spend a lot of time with each other in these sorts of settings — as opposed to simply classroom type settings or the worship service — they get to know each other in ways that build familiarity, empathy, intimacy, etc. And the same is true of spending time in these settings with unchurched folks, as well. A closed-off, insular, cloistered church is not conducive to a gracious climate. It runs out of air too quickly; people can’t breathe.

6. Take it personally

Most importantly, you I must be what you I want to see. So often as you are I am checking your my church’s pulse — which Bonhoeffer wisely says not to keep doing — we are I am thinking of all the people who need to get their act together, who need a big dose of humility. We may be right about them. But applying to others first is not the humble impulse of grace taken seriously. I need to keep a close watch on my life and doctrine. I need to outdo others in showing honor. I need to practice confession and repentance. I need to humble myself. As I am growing intellectually, I need to hold the fruit of the Spirit up to my heart and be fearless and honest about asking, “How am I doing in these areas?”

For each of us, a gracious climate begins with us.


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