The Gift

This post is more or less a continuation of the thoughts expressed in the previous post.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this delicate balance between faith and works.  It’s such a fine line between working for your salvation and working it out in your daily life.  So fine that we are easily led astray into one extreme or the other if we are not focused on the One leading us.

When I woke up this morning, this verse came to mind:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Philippians 2:12

In the past I’ve had a hard time understanding it because the Bible clearly tells us that salvation is a free gift (Ephesians 2:8, 9).  I knew this wasn’t contradicting that, but I couldn’t quite articulate how it fit.  My current understanding is still a work in progress, but I wanted to share what I’m learning so far.

The best way I can explain it is through a story, and since I’m a girl, my story is rather feminine in nature. (Sorry, guys!)

Imagine that a girl receives the gift of the most exquisitely beautiful wedding dress she’s ever seen.  In fact, it’s the dress of her dreams.  And it’s hers to keep, free of charge, no strings attached.  But it’s a size 6, and she’s a size 16.  She knows her own efforts to get to a size 6 in the past have been complete failures, and just when she’s despairing of ever being able to wear the dress, the Gift Giver offers to be her personal trainer.  He promises that if she will just be willing to follow his exercise regimen and instructions, she’ll be wearing that dress in no time.

Once she agrees, the hard work begins.  Not only does he have her doing regular exercise routines, he’s teaching her to break the bad habits that lead to unhealthy weight gain.  He shows her how to eat healthfully, how to exercise moderation and discipline.

It’s a lot of hard work, and some days she feels like giving up, but he’s with her through it all, encouraging her.  In fact, he puts in so much effort to help her achieve her dream.  He doesn’t just sit on the sidelines, watching her work out, telling her what to do.  He’s right there beside her, doing every exercise.  First he shows her how it’s done, then he does it with her.  He never leaves her side.  He’s with her all the way, putting an arm around her and pulling her along that last half-mile when she feels she can’t run a step further.

Eventually, the day comes when all the pain and struggle is rewarded as she walks down the aisle in her beautiful wedding dress, and pledges her life to her beloved trainer.

This is the best way I can explain it.  Salvation is a free gift, but it doesn’t end with receiving the gift.  Someone can give me a free ticket to Brazil, but unless I get my passport and visa, I probably won’t see anything more than that little room the immigration authorities put you in when they want to make sure you won’t escape before being sent back to your own country.

It reminds me of the parable Jesus told of the wedding guest who refused to wear the wedding garment (Matthew 22:1-14).  The invitation was freely given, but the guests needed to put on the provided wedding garment, which represents Christ’s character.

While the gift is free, something is required of us, and that part is the “work” we do.  It’s the faith with which we accept Jesus’ gift and the help He provides to get our characters into shape so we can be fit for heaven.  Our “work” is holding on to Him, as He leads us down the path, and pulls us up the hilly parts.  Our “work” is obedience, which we can’t even take credit for, because He gives us the power to do it.  Our “work” is submission to His way.

“While it is true that our busy activities will not in themselves ensure salvation, it is also true that faith which unites us to Christ will stir the soul to activity.” Ellen White, Our High Calling, p. 121.

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A Vibrant Life

What’s the essence of Christianity?  Think about your answer to that question for a moment.  What does it mean for you and me to be Christians?  Think of your answer to that too.  What does Christianity look like lived out?  Really consider that one.

After thinking about it, I’d describe Christianity as belonging to one person: the One who bought us back from death.  Real Christianity is not the result of a series of outward actions: the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the activities you do, the food you eat, the things you watch, etc.  The Christ-life starts inside, when you give Jesus your heart.  But it doesn’t remain there.  It moves out.  It changes every aspect of your life.  Yes, the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the activities you do, the food you eat, the things you watch, etc.  And it touches the people around you.

Remember Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed?  He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (Matt. 13:31, 32, NKJV)

A mustard seed is really tiny.  Yet for starting out too small to provide even a decent bite for a bird, it becomes home to many birds.  This is how our Savior works.  Jesus starts inside our hearts, forgiving us, changing us, transforming us, nurturing us from newborn babies until we’ve grown up into men and women fit for heaven.

Jesus told another parable along the same lines.  “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” (Matt. 13:33)  That little bit of leaven, mixed in with the bread dough can’t be removed.  It permeates the entire loaf.  The same with Jesus once we surrender our lives to Him.  He’s no longer a bystander on the edge of our lives, or a once-a-week visit to a steepled structure.  He’s real, living, present, active in every part of our lives.

This is what the Christian life looks like.  It’s dynamic, not static.

Now consider that in terms of the relationship between faith and works.

Faith is important, nay vital (I couldn’t resist!)  But it doesn’t stand alone.  Jesus intended it to be mixed with works, yet never with the idea that your works are earning you a spot in heaven.  Check out these two contrasting yet complimenting passages:

“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?  Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!  But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?  Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?  And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”  And he was called the friend of God.  You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.  Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:14-26)

“Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.  Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.  Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.  Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” (Romans 3:27-31)

“We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.

“But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!  For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.  For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 2:15-21)

To make it even more interesting, add love into the mix.  Just reading 1 Corinthians 13 alone makes it clear that even the best works without love are empty.  Yet check out what Jesus said about the connection between love and obedience to His law: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)  And He didn’t stop there; He repeated it again in verses 21 and 23.

Obedience is the outflow of love, not the other way around.  Obedience shows that we know God.  “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.  He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.  But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.  He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.” (1 John 2:3-6)

These passages are important because they help us understand how to live the Christian life as we prepare for life with our coming King.  Satan doesn’t want us to understand.  He doesn’t want us to be ready.  He wants us to be like the unfaithful servant in Matthew 24:48-51.  But God has made His truth known in His word.  So prayerfully take a look at these verses again and hear what God is saying to you.

My point is simple: by faith, the seed was planted in my heart and began to grow; the leaven was added to the lump of bread dough and mixed in.  The end result is a life of obedience to His will, the lifestyle of the King’s daughter in a foreign land.

True Religion

It’s more than a brand of jeans.  More than a social cause.  It’s a lifestyle.

These days many of us are very familiar with what the Bible says in James 1:27 about the essence of true religion.  It has been the preface to many a sermon, worship talk, or speech to rouse us from our self-absorbed slumber into action for the good of those who are hurting around the globe.

Yet in all the swarm of activity around our social causes, some of us have lost something.  Before I go any further, let me say that social causes are good.  God encourages, even requires us to take care of those who need help.  But there’s something else that’s good.  It is the balancing side to a scale that is growing fearfully unbalanced.

It’s the Mary perspective.

Jesus once visited his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42).  While Martha was busy doing the good thing of preparing a meal to serve Jesus, Mary was doing the good thing of sitting at His feet, listening to the words of truth.  Both were good things.  But one was commended as better: listening to the words of Jesus.

That practice of taking time to study and learn from Jesus is often neglected in favor of active service projects.  Neither side should be neglected.  Take a closer look at James 1:27:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

That last part often goes unmentioned.  But God puts the two together: service for others and remaining spiritually pure.  It’s the same thing in the great commandment: love for God first, with everything you are, and then a responsibility to love others as you love yourself.  One can never be separated from the other.  This concept is all throughout the Bible:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice,
 correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” – Isaiah 1:16, 17, ESV.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:34-40, NLT.

There it is.  Care for others and love for God, shown in obedience to all His commands.  This is true religion.  It is not an unbalanced thing.  It does not take from one side only and believe that is enough.  It does not cloister itself away in a shack in the mountains, studying the Bible 24/7.  It does not overfill its plate with projects and causes until there’s no time for anything else and burnout sets in.

It balances actively seeking God in His word with serving Him by serving others.  Jesus Himself gave us the example.  He spent time teaching, healing, and preaching, but He also took time out for deep seasons of communion with His Father.  We’re definitely billions of light years from being on the same level as Jesus, so how much more do we need deep seasons of communion with God and time to study His word?

Notice Matthew 7:21-13:

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’”

My good works cannot save me.  But they will be important.  Through them, my obedience to God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself will be shown.  Similarly, a pure life, washed clean from sin through His blood and kept unspotted by following His words, shows my love for Him above all others.  Both sides working together show whether or not I have truly done the will of my Father.  Love for God with everything in us first, and then love for others as for ourselves.  This is the essence of true religion.