The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘grace

Grace and sin

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A number of pastoral issues have arisen recently which have brought home to me some particular truths and some particular emphases arising from them. Many of these situations are on the fringes of church life or outside it (though I sincerely hope that some of them might, under God’s gracious influences, come within it in due course). How much we need to grasp spiritual realities with scriptural definition! It is a great distress to see how often false religion dismisses the former and degrades the latter, but even more grievous is to see professing Christians mishandle matters of central importance. (Please understand that these are not veiled critiques of events in the Christian stratosphere, but observations about concrete situations in local churches, or at least those places which call themselves churches. But you are wise, and may apply it.)

One area where this has cropped up recently is in the matter of grace, what Matthew Henry somewhere describes as “the free favour of God and all the blessed fruits of it.” In common Christian parlance, grace seems to have become a catch-all noun to describe a certain kind of softness and carelessness with regard to sin. When acts and patterns of sin are exposed, we are encouraged to be gracious, but that grace is often not defined or ill-defined. When criticisms are made of certain acts and their actors, the rebuke is readily offered, “That is not gracious!” Grace, apparently, can ignore the sin that calls forth the critique, but not the sin of critiquing it!

So, for example, when there is gross sin in the church, we must show grace. When someone is acting wickedly, it is gracious not to condemn it. When a lie is told, grace will ignore the matter. When leaders fudge matters of righteousness, ignore God’s truth, and expose God’s flock to harms because they will not deal with transgressors, they are showing grace, and we must show grace by not charging them with any failings.

But this nebulous notion of grace is very far removed from the spiritual reality with scriptural definition that we find revealed and displayed in our Bibles. Gospel grace does not excuse or ignore or neglect sin. Gospel grace is never casual or careless with regard to transgression. Gospel grace, whether patterned in God or echoed in man, never pretends sin is not sin. Gospel grace does not expose the flock to harm because it will not identify error and heresy and defend against errorists and heretics, even in the name of love. Gospel grace suffers long, but it is not a disregard for iniquity that is dishonouring to God and dangerous to men. Gospel grace does not call evil good, and good evil; it does not put darkness for light, and light for darkness, or bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Is 5.20).

Gospel grace always faces and addresses sin, though it does so in a gracious way. If you want a seasonal example, think of that just man, who did not want to make the woman he loved a public example, despite what he was legitimately persuaded was the growing evidence of heinous sin, and “was minded to put her away secretly” (Mt 1.19). Grace took no delight in parading sin, but it did not pretend that it was not (as far as could reasonably be determined) sin. When Joseph was enlightened concerning the reality of the situation, would he not have been relieved that he did not have an immediately ungracious response, and make of Mary the most public example he could? Grace prevents us making errors born of harshness, and allows for the easy correction of mistakes.

Remember that fervent love is commanded among the saints, a love which will cover a multitude of sins (1Pt 4.8 cf. Prv 10.12), but consider that such love recognises sin as sin and chooses that, for good and proper reasons, it will be discreet in dealing with it or covering it. Again, to quote Matthew Henry, this love “inclines people to forgive and forget offences against themselves, to cover and conceal the sins of others, rather than aggravate them and spread them abroad.” We read that “the discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression” (Prv 19.11) – he decides, as appropriate, that this transgression is not something that needs to be dealt with immediately and publicly, though he still recognises it as transgression, and there may come a time when a pattern of transgression requires him to stop overlooking and start acting. We do not pull one another up on every slip of deed and word, but take account of our frailties and failings as sinful creatures, creatures with remaining sin even as redeemed men and women. This is the grace of God as Father, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103.8–14).

Notice here the hints at the greatest expression of grace: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in coming into the world to die on the cross for his wretched and sin-wrecked people was at once the clearest recognition of sin and the highest expression of mercy. God did not pretend that there was no sin; he saw it more clearly than we ever shall, but put it away by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. The cross is at once the revealing of the sinfulness of sin and the demonstration of the graciousness of grace.

Gospel grace does not revel in the public exposure of sin and aggressive shaming of sinners, like a church boasting of how many cases of corrective discipline it has handled recently. But neither does it sweep sin away as if it were of no moment. True gospel grace, patterned in a gracious God and echoed in gracious men, always faces sin head on. It is patient and kind, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, but it is also fiercely committed to the glory of a God who is holy and to the good of those who are called to be holy just as he is holy. It calls sin sin, and it considers the nature, occasion and consequences of any particular sin and responds appropriately.

Grace is not, then, an excuse to downplay or dismiss sin as if it were of no consequence, to go on neglecting to deal with it. Grace does not make sin of no account. Grace is the most honest in dealing with sin. Grace always takes account of sin, it looks sin in the ugly eye and – one way or another – it puts it away, sometimes at great cost to itself, dealing fairly and even tenderly with those in whom that sin is discerned, as occasion demands.

Grace, ultimately, is Godlike. It is not a commodity, a mere thing, but an expression of the heart of God in Christ Jesus his Son. If we would have a pattern for gospel grace, we must find it in Christ crucified. Bring all sin into the light of the gospel, put all sin under the shadow of the cross, and there you shall find wisdom in how to deal with it. Deal with it graciously, but deal with it you must. There is nothing gracious about pretending otherwise.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 23 December 2014 at 10:01

Posted in General

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Of law and gospel

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‘Do this and live’

Every gospel preacher, wanting to emphasise that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, will have contrasted this gospel with the attempt to gain salvation by works. It is worth reflecting, therefore, on the fact that when the Lord Jesus Christ is asked by a lawyer ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ he answers, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ When the lawyer repeats the two great commandments, concerning loving God and loving your neighbour, Jesus says, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live’ (Luke 10: 25-28). When a rich young man asks him virtually the same question, Jesus tells him ‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments’ (Matt 19:17). He then, in the one case by a personal challenge and in the other by a parable, quickly reveals the spiritual bankruptcy of both men. However valid the principle, they cannot fulfil it.

Why does Jesus start here?

Mostyn Roberts offers an answer. It will get your brain working, but it’s stimulating stuff.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 5 May 2012 at 22:17

Mercy for roadkill

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“What is your servant, that you should look upon such a dead dog as I?”

When our dogs die, we cry. When these dogs died, people laughed. Dogs were pests not pets. They were vermin. The only good dog was a dead dog. And that’s what Mephibosheth felt like – a splattered, stinking, dog corpse that people shuddered to look at.

Yet the king not only looked at him, but scraped him off the ground, cared for him, clothed him, fed him, and sat him at the royal table continuously.

From roadkill to a royal son. What mercy?

I wonder if Mephibosheth kept the chain of grace going?

Have you?

Read about this chain of grace and determine that you will not be the failing link.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 23 March 2012 at 12:22

On the law of God

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The law of God is good and wise
And sets his will before our eyes,
Shows us the way of righteousness,
And dooms to death when we transgress.

Its light of holiness imparts
The knowledge of our sinful hearts
That we may see our lost estate
And seek deliv’rance ere too late.

To those who help in Christ have found
And would in works of love abound
It shows what deeds are his delight
And should be done as good and right.

When men the offered help disdain
And wilfully in sin remain,
Its terror in their ear resounds
And keeps their wickedness in bounds.

The law is good; but since the fall
Its holiness condemns us all;
It dooms us for our sin to die
And has no pow’r to justify.

To Jesus we for refuge flee,
Who from the curse has set us free,
And humbly worship at his throne,
Saved by his grace through faith alone.

via Heavenly Worldliness.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 10 January 2012 at 19:31

Posted in Christian living

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Indicatives and imperatives

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Justin Taylor has provided a helpful set of links to the ongoing discussions between William Evans and Sean Lucas at Reformation21 and Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchividjian at the Gospel Coalition. Having made reference to a couple of these before, being persuaded of how important the issues are, and therefore having an ongoing interest in the matter, I thought others might appreciate following the discussion. Taylor summarises:

William B. Evans and Sean Michael Lucas have been engaged in a profitable discussion over at Reformation 21 on sanctification and the gospel. Here are their exchanges:

Rick Phillips also added a helpful and important post summarizing seven assertions about the relationship between justification and sanctification.

As I’ve mentioned before, Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchividjian have been engaged in a longer—though less direct—discussion addressing similar issues:

UPDATE: Kevin DeYoung appears to have discovered a new grammatical/theological category. According to the URL for his penultimate piece in his conversation with Tullian, he is actually discussing “inidactives.” No wonder these guys are in danger of talking past each other! From now on we must consider the indicatives, the imperatives, and the fearsome and yet to be designated inidactives.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 19 August 2011 at 09:07

God’s gospel gift

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Cast your mind back into the depths of the allegedly-festive season. For many, it would be a time for the giving of gifts. Typically, with the person in mind for whom you desire a gift, you set out to find something that fits the template. Indeed, sitting in the Christmas carnage and tracing back from the gift to the perceived needs, desires or expectations of the intended recipient can be a little disconcerting. The socks and chutney imply a frozen-toed cheese eater; the DIY [home improvement] manual and the alarm clock hint at someone both incompetent and lazy; the sweater and make up suggest someone cold and ugly to boot. There is a lot to get wrong in such mind games: our foolishness, sensitivity (or utter lack of it) and ignorance might leave us muddled and misguided. Furthermore, if there is no appropriate and appreciated match between what is given and the one to whom it is given, those gifts lie quickly forgotten and largely neglected, unworn, uneaten, unused.

But what if a gifted, wise and insightful physician who knew us accurately and intimately sent to us a box of pills with instructions to begin a life-saving course of medication immediately? Might you not be entitled to presume that he had correctly diagnosed a deadly condition and has kindly provided the cure? In such an instance, you might accurately match the recipient and the gift, connecting the condition and circumstances of the former with the nature of the latter. And would you not be relying on it still? Would not that gift remain unspeakably precious to you?

So it is with God’s gospel gift: an unbreakable, inexhaustible, unforgettable, incalculably precious saving gift. The eternal God was neither ignorant nor whimsical, was not foolish or misguided, in sending his Son to save men. Here we have a gift precisely fitted and perfectly suited to the character, circumstances and condition of fallen mankind, calling forth perpetual reliance and overwhelming thankfulness. In Romans 5.6-11 the apostle Paul makes some of the connections between the recipients and the gift, describing sinful men in the light of the saving Christ:

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

Firstly, Paul says that we are powerless. We are utterly without strength (Rom 5.6). The word Paul employs here is used in Matthew 25.31-46, Luke 10.9 and Acts 5.15-16 of those helplessly sick; in Acts 4.9 it describes the impotence of a man who was lame; in 1 Corinthians 12.22 it speaks of weakness and feebleness. It is a word describing comprehensive helplessness, and in Romans 5.6 it is used of our natural state, having no power in ourselves to do good, able neither to resist sin nor to pursue righteousness. We had no strength to restore our relationship with God nor to maintain one if it could be restored. Paul pictures a man utterly lacking in spiritual vitality, without any of the functions of life: it is a sketch of entire, ongoing, sinful incapacity, of a man beyond human help.

It was to men in such a state as this that Christ was given. We need someone who is truly strong, able not only to act on his own behalf but on behalf of others also, not only to secure good for himself but for others too. According to Isaiah, Jesus is just such a mighty Deliverer: “He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might he increases strength” (Is 40.29).

Secondly, we are by nature ungodly. Paul uses the same word in Romans 4.5. He means one who is thoroughly lost, wicked, having nothing to offer God. To be such a person means that we can never take God’s favour for granted because we positively fail to deserve any good; we have no entitlement to blessing. Romans 5.6 tells us that ungodly people needed someone to die for them: we required a ransom to be paid, someone to come at the proper time, the appointed hour, to take our place. The seventh verse makes plain that this is, by any account, the rarest of gifts. How much more when it is to men considered not as good and righteous but as ungodly that God sent the Son of his love? It was to men lost entirely and wicked throughout that Jesus came to do nothing less than die: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10.45).

Again, we are sinners. We are those who miss the mark at which we aim, who fall short of our target. It is the tragedy of fallen men that we not only fall short of the target which we truly desire and earnestly pursue – our own happiness – but that we also fall short of that at which we should aim: the glory and honour of God, which we rarely consider and usually despise. In short, we are both personally wretched and morally polluted. As such, there is nothing in us to evoke blessing but much to demand cursing. It is a condition that leaves us entirely exposed to the divine displeasure and righteous judgment.

Paul would have us understand that to secure the life of sinners by any gift would be unspeakable love, the very pinnacle of grace, and such love and grace are displayed in a God who gives nothing less than his beloved Son for us, and in a Christ who willingly lays down his life to secure blessing for such men.

Fourthly, we are guilty. This is the clear implication of the language of sin and of justification (Rom 5.8-9). We need to be justified, to be declared righteous in the sight of a holy God. As sinners, we have deserved nothing but condemnation, and we abide under wrath. We have no righteousness of our own to plead, no goodness to parade. Justice demands vengeance, and what can provide satisfaction apart from fearful and just judgments falling upon the head of the guilty sinner? Where can such a sinner find a putting away of sin and a grant of righteousness, so propitiating the wrath of an offended God? How can we come to have that happy testimony, “You have forgiven the iniquity of your people; you have covered all their sin. You have taken away all your wrath; you have turned from the fierceness of your anger” (Ps 85.2-3)?

It requires blood. We are justified by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, who gave his life, so paying the debt, removing the guilt, providing a credit that was acceptable in saving transaction with a holy God.

Furthermore, we are enemies. Sin becomes habitual, habitual rebellion produces a deepening aversion to the Righteous One, that aversion develops into a settled enmity, and enmity breaks out into open hostility. Every sinner is on that way of rooted adversity to God in some form and degree, and is therefore subject to his wrath. We were rebelliously opposed to God and God was fearfully opposed to us. We were both antagonistic toward him and alienated from him, being without God and without hope in the world. Our relationship to God by nature is not one of neutrality, but of war. Men rage impotently against God and God sets himself implacably against all iniquity. Where, then, can a man find peace with God? Where is God reconciled, enmity removed, harmony established, justice vindicated, and holiness honoured?

God himself supplies the means. The offended God is himself the one who addresses the grounds of separation and provides for reconciliation. It is and must be a fruit of astonishing love, profound pity, and incalculable grace to design and execute such a plan, but what again almost beggars belief is that this reconciliation required nothing less than the giving of God’s own beloved Son. It was not accomplished at any lesser price.

But there is more still. For supposing that all this is carried out on our behalf – the powerless find a champion, the ungodly find a sacrifice, sinners find a saving life, the guilty find a righteousness, enemies find a reconciliation.  It leaves us still and always utterly dependent. Saved men need saving. This does not for one instant mean that there is something lacking in the life and death of Jesus that yet remains to be made up, but rather speaks of our continual need for his grace and strength, our perpetual reliance upon him, finding all our security for the present and future in him alone. Paul speaks of our being saved from wrath through him, by his life (Rom 5.9-10). Our abiding union with our crucified but risen Redeemer ensures that we remain protected to the end and into eternity. We are reconciled by his death and saved by his life, having nothing to fear in the day of wrath, for he both secures our standing by his acceptance with God and is living to intercede for us. He is our Good Shepherd, guiding his sheep safely to the eternal fold; our Great Priest who stands before God on our behalf; he is securing and will secure our final happiness.

Thus we have in these verses two portraits, intimately connected to each other, reflective of each other in the way that a negative reflects the original. Here is the light of Christ and the corresponding distorted shadow cast by sinful man. The portrait of ourselves is unflatteringly honest, depicting us ruined and lost. The portrait of the Lord Jesus shows him as the gift of God, piercingly beautiful, precisely fitted and perfectly suited to the character, condition and circumstances of those he came to save. He is displayed as One mighty to deliver, by his life, death and resurrection supplying the reconciling righteousness and the cleansing blood that we could never obtain for ourselves, and this he provided by taking our place and dying on our behalf.

Do we accept the testimony of the gospel gift of Jesus Christ about our character, condition and circumstances? It may not be flattering, but it is painfully accurate. Look at the portrait: do you not see your own face staring back at you? Do you find your own wretchedness and neediness written in these things? God was not ignorant or whimsical, not foolish or mistaken when he sent his Son for sinners. The gift was given because the state of the intended recipients demanded nothing less.

Do you accept the gift? It is one thing to acknowledge the need, but another to accept the gift? Salvation is entirely from without. Martin Luther used to speak of the natural man as turned in upon himself. Grace shows the emptiness within, and makes us lift our eyes outward and upward to where we find our only help. Let us be honest: if the portrait of sinful man is a portrait of my own soul, where will I find salvation in myself? If I am powerless, ungodly, sinning, guilty and opposed to God, what will I offer to secure my salvation? There is nothing else left but to look elsewhere. Helpless sinners need a mighty Helper if they are to be delivered from sin and death and hell. God offers the priceless gift of his incarnate Son, and nothing more is required than to cast one’s soul for time and for eternity upon him, to accept the gospel gift as the one and sole answer to the damnable misery of separation from God.

Let us note here – especially those of us who preach – that any message that offers hope but fails to take account of these particular needs and the gift given to address them is a false gospel. To paint the soul of sinners in brighter colours than these does not shut people up to the only remedy, but gives man a falsely elevated view of his own capacity and a correspondingly low view of the saving excellence of the Lord Christ. To offer any alternative remedy is to offer a placebo that, at best, will float men gently and peacefully into the Pit. However, God’s gospel gift of his gracious and glorious Son delivers men from sin and death and hell when it is received with repentant faith.

Should we not, then, humbly receive, gratefully remember and ardently rejoice in such a gift? Only love and mercy would offer such an unparallelable kindness to people such as us; only a fool would reject him; only a gross ingrate could possibly forget the greatest of all possible gifts; only a hard heart would fail to rejoice in the Giver and his glorious Gift. This is where Paul brings us and leaves us: “we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Rom 5.11). The focus is not on ourselves, not even so much on what we receive in Christ, but on the Christ whom we receive by faith, and the God who sent him to be received. Paul leaves us exulting in God in Christ. We boast not in ourselves, but in the saving God through whom the utterly unworthy receive reconciliation, made secure for life and in death and through eternity by his Son – Jesus the Ransomer, God’s gospel gift.

This article first appeared at Reformation21.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 19 January 2011 at 12:11

Grace breaks in

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After the morning service on Sunday, I walked over to see what everyone was starring at through the window of the sanctuary. It was 4 men, dressed in black, trying to break into the car of one of our church members. So, how did I see the grace of the gospel in this?

Read Brian Croft’s answer.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 13 January 2011 at 09:40

Posted in Christian living

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