repentance

Plank Pulling

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By Linda Rex

Do you ever have one of those days when you don’t realize the plank in your eye is getting so big you are no longer seeing what’s right in front of you? Worst of all is when suddenly the plank is pulled out and the light of the truth about your own brokenness is so strong you are overwhelmed by it.

I had this experience the other day when talking with a group of friends. We were and are concerned about someone very dear to us who is doing something self-destructive and unhealthy. My heart was breaking about this, so I mentioned my real concern about her indifference to the harm she was doing to her own body. As I said this I reached across the table for my fifth handful of chocolate-peanut candies.

Later, in the quiet of my own home, I was praying about these concerns for this person and sharing my thoughts with Abba. I quite clearly saw that picture in my mind’s eye, of me reaching for another handful of goodies. God’s love for me understood my concerns for someone else, but would not let me off the hook about the harm I was doing to myself. A taste here and there is fine—but this was more than I probably should have been eating at the time.

Here’s the point: whatever harm I am doing to myself is no different than the harm someone else is doing to themselves. Yes, I need to love them enough to not enable them to continue in self-destructive behavior. But I also need to love Abba and the others in my life as well as myself enough to not continue in my own self-destructive behavior. It goes both ways.

God often brings us to these places, if we are willing, where we are faced with the reality of how our ways of living do not reflect the truth of who we are in Christ. The apostle James says it’s like looking at ourselves in a mirror:

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:23–25 NASB)

This perfect law of liberty—our true freedom in Christ to love God and love one another—is written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus Christ living his life in us by the Spirit who moves us to be the doers of this law of liberty. God pours his love into our hearts and we find ourselves loving others in ways we never could or would before.

Recognizing the indwelling presence of God in our hearts gives us hope. When we are burdened by our failures to love and receive love, we are comforted by God’s grace and compassion.

We are helped in this redemptive process by healthy relationships which are full of grace and understanding. Often in order to forgive ourselves or receive God’s forgiveness, we need to experience abundant grace and mercy from those around us.

One of the biggest struggles some of us may have is with receiving love and care from others which points out our need to grow in Christlikeness. On the one hand, we may like people taking care of us, but on the other, we don’t want them challenging us to change. We may want them to do good things for us, but we don’t like them asking us to assume responsibility for what is ours to do.

This is where the redemptive grace of God becomes a cause of offense to us rather than the sweet-smelling aroma of God’s blessing and favor. Over and over in our lives God draws near to us through people and circumstances, showing us the truth of who we are in him. The miracle of grace in the life, death, resurrection of God’s Son causes us to see our failures to love and receive love.

The gift of forgiveness in Christ Jesus says to each of us, whether we like it or not—you and I are in great need of forgiveness. But God doesn’t just leave us in that place of need. The realization of our need for forgiveness creates space in our hearts and lives for him to enter in and begin his transformation process. In opening ourselves up to receive God’s grace, we participate with Christ in the redemptive process.

One of the blessings poured out on us in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is the realization we are Abba’s beloved child in Christ Jesus. The Spirit enables us to experience the living presence of Christ and Abba in us, and he is at work transforming our hearts by faith. We see the evidence of God’s indwelling presence by the way we love God and love others as ourselves. Over time it becomes obvious to us and to others we reflect the nature of the living Lord.

As the Spirit works, he grows us more and more into the image of Christ. This means he brings us to deeper and deeper levels of self-awareness as well as to a greater awareness of the real Being God himself. Our relationship with God develops over time, and as it grows, we are brought into a greater realization of the size of the planks in our own eyes as well as a greater compassion and concern for the well-being of others.

Drawing nearer to God means we draw nearer to others, but it also may mean we come to see ourselves and God in new ways. The Spirit gives us greater insight into the deepest parts of our person, and there are times when we find we must once again repent, or turn back to Christ, and trust him to heal and restore us. Repentance and faith are an ongoing part of our life-long journey with Christ. As we continue to participate with Christ in our salvation through repentance and faith, he by the Spirit will continually bring us into a deeper, more authentic relationship with God and others.

Dear Abba, thank you for your faithful love. Thank you for freeing us to love you and love others through your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit who draws us deeper and deeper into intimate relationship with you. Grant us the heart and mind to turn to Christ and respond moment by moment to your Spirit’s work, so we are not offended by grace, but rather are transformed, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.


“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.”
2 Corinthians 13:5–10 NASB

Owning Our Stuff

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By Linda Rex

Yesterday, as the sun peeked out occasionally from storm clouds and a cool breeze kept us wishing for a jacket, we sat outside the church and talked. Good News Fellowship was stepping out of our comfort zone and had invited the community to stop by for the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Although no one from the community joined us for this event, or for the Community Ash Wednesday service which followed, it was still a good opportunity for us to reflect on the reality of what Christ has done and is doing in our lives.

As a denomination, in the past we have not celebrated this particular day or tradition. But our pastoral team felt it was an opportunity for us to open our doors and begin to step outside of them, offering others an opportunity to share with us the good news of what God has done and is doing in our lives.

As I studied the common practices for the observation of Ash Wednesday, I was struck by the focus on our humanity—“from dust you came, and to dust you will return”—and by the emphasis on repentance and penitence. As we move into the Lenten season, a season of fasting, prayer and repentance, Ash Wednesday provides a good marker and way of getting us focused on and looking forward to the events of Holy Week and the resurrection of Jesus.

It is a good thing to be reminded we are made from dust and will return to dust. There is a sense of humility which comes from realizing apart from the grace of God, we would have no existence at all. In fact, we only exist because of the love and grace of a God who determined before time began we would share in his glory.

I was reminded, though, that any thought of repentance or penitence needs to be kept within the reality of who God is, who Christ is, and who we are in him. We begin not by gazing at ourselves, our faults and failures, but first at the God who created us and made us his own. This God isn’t focused on our limitations or our weaknesses, but on the relationships he created us for, and on the love he has for us.

One of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday this year was Joel 2:1–2, 12–17. These particular verses leapt out at me: “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.” (Joel 2:12–13 NASB) The prophet Joel placed the call to repentance within the framework of who God is, just as God had described himself to Moses so many centuries before, a God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Exodus 34:6-7).

God indeed wants us to own our stuff, to face up to the truth of how we fall short as human beings. But he more importantly, wants us to face up to the truth of who he is—the kind of God who is loving and forgiving, not cruel, condemning and rejecting. In giving us his Son Jesus Christ, God didn’t push us away in our brokenness, but rather brought us close, joining with us in our sin and shame, washing it away, and drawing us into deeper relationship with himself.

In fact, one of the first things which occurred in Jesus’ life after his baptism, when he heard the words of blessing from his Father “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, was being, in effect, “cast out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted of the devil. This forty days of fasting and testing, this penitence, was done on our behalf, for our sake. Jesus took the road of repentance we need to take, where we own our stuff and we choose to turn to God in faith rather than make our own way to glory.

As we enter this season of penitence, this Lenten season of reflection on our need for deliverance and salvation, I feel it is essential we begin with the reality of God’s love and mercy rather than just ending with it. Start with owning what is ours—the gift of forgiveness, and love which comes from the heart of our loving Father—as well as his Spirit who works in us our transformation and healing. And in the light of that, we look at our fallenness and need for grace.

When we keep these things in that order, then repentance is not a move toward despair and despondency, but rather a move toward joyful gratitude. We are compelled to say, “Thank you, Lord, for your mercy.” This is why I could not bring myself just to tell people as I administered the ashes “You came from dust and you will return to dust.” For me, it seemed to leave them in the dust in despair—that doesn’t seem to be what God had in mind. Why else would we have Christ at all?

To me repentance is an essential part of our walk as followers of Jesus Christ. We confess our fallenness, our brokenness, our ungodly ways of living and being. But we do it all in the context of the forgiveness which is already ours and available to us in Jesus Christ. We act as if we are forgiven and act as if we are healed. This is why I felt compelled to use these words in the administration of the ashes this year, “You came from dust, and you will return to dust. So thank the Lord Jesus for joining you in your dust and lifting you up to glory.”

Perhaps I will see things differently in the future—God is always working to heal, transform and renew. But in owning our stuff, I believe we not only need to own our fallen and broken ways of living and being, but also the heart of our loving Father who in Christ and by his Spirit says to us, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Owning our stuff means owning the reality we are forgiven, accepted and cherished by the God who calls us his own, and living and acting as though it were true.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the great love which compelled you to not only create us out of the dust of the earth and to breathe your life into us, but to also send your Son to join us in our humanity and to raise us up to live with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace of true repentance and faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 32
A psalm of David.
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty!

When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.

Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time, that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment. For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory.

The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”

Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the LORD. So rejoice in the LORD and be glad, all you who obey him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” (NLT)

Being Right vs. Being Rightly Related

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By Linda Rex

Have you ever had to come to terms with the reality you were absolutely, totally and completely wrong about something you were entirely convinced of? You were so sure you were correct, you were quick to tell anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) what you believed to be true while not realizing you were completely in error? Me, too.

One of the things I’ve learned from such experiences is not only a little humility, but also the reality enforcing our position of “being right” rarely if ever builds relationships. Instead, it often puts an intense strain on the relationship, especially if we make “being right” a condition of that relationship. It takes great humility and grace to place having a warm, loving relationship with someone of higher value than being in the right about something.

I used to be amused listening to the elderly couples in the nursing home when they got to telling stories. One would be telling quite a tale, while the other would be correcting all the facts as they went. Happy couples found a way to let the details go or to graciously overlook the failure at accuracy, or they would just laugh it off when one of them got it wrong. Other couples would start down the road to a fight, or would just be downright nasty to each other. They didn’t seem to value the relationship as much as they did “being right.”

Granted, there is a place for the true realities of life. And yes, there are things we do stand for which are worth standing for—those things which Jesus Christ stood for in his life, his death, his resurrection and ascension. When Jesus called us to follow him, he warned us ahead of time people would not necessarily welcome us or be willing to listen to and agree with the good news we are offering. In fact, he indicated we would share in his suffering and death because of what we believed to be true and right.

Being a person of integrity is something God calls each of us to be. We are to be honest, even to the place of the core of our being—truly and completely transparent and authentic, pure of thought and deed. The reason God wants us to be this way is because it is the way he is as Father, Son and Spirit, and we as human beings are made in his image to reflect his likeness. Part of that likeness is being people of honesty and integrity.

Do you realize, though, that God in Christ lives in relationship with millions of people who are dishonest and not authentic and transparent? And, believe it or not, God didn’t make “being right” a condition of his relationship with all the broken people we are—no, it is “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “God so loved the world” not while we were right, but while we were horribly, terribly wrong (John 3:16-17).

Being honest, truthful and authentic human beings is not a condition of our relationship with God, but a result of the relationship God forged with us in Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. Today God offers us his living Word, the Lord Jesus, and so by his Spirit opens the written Word of God to our understanding, and God’s implanted Word in our hearts creates in us Jesus’ own humility, honest, integrity and transparent authenticity.

God does not demand we be right in every instance, but rather invites us into relationship with himself, and works to transform our hearts and minds in the process so in the end we will come to discern and choose what is right in God’s sight. God focuses on life. We tend to focus on what is good and what is evil—the rules to follow so we can “be right”—do-it-yourself religion. God focuses on us being rightly related to him, and is working to make everything right in the end—which is something only he can do. He is the only One who is truly and always “right.”

This afternoon I was going through some old family correspondence. And I was reflecting on the painful and difficult path we trod as a family who parted ways theologically when I was in my thirties. I was informed how “wrong” I was on many occasions, but I tried very hard not to respond in kind. I did not preach. I did not cut off the relationship. I did my best to offer God’s unconditional love and acceptance no matter the response I got, all the way up until the relationship ended in death.

God honored this, for which I am grateful. Somehow, we were able to transcend the religious barrier and get down to the reality of building a loving relationship with one another in spite of it. Yes, there were awkward moments and uncomfortable conversations. But for the most part, there was a leaning toward one another rather than away from one another. And I hope someday to be able to finish our conversations in the presence of Jesus in glory. Then we will each know for a fact, where we were truly right and truly wrong. (And I imagine it will be both in each instance.)

I believe it is possible for us as human beings to transcend our differences, even the critical ones, by offering one another the love of God in Christ. The discussions we are facing today in our political and cultural arena are difficult and painful ones, and there must be by necessity, strong differences in beliefs, opinions and convictions. But we need to look to the One who created us in this way, differences as well as equality in person, value and being, in order to see how best to get beyond them into true unity.

The path none of us seem to want to take is the path Jesus trod and told us we were to follow him down. His path to unity took him straight through his sacrificial suffering and crucifixion into the grave. None of us want to lay any part of ourselves in the grave with him, nor do we want to admit that perhaps the only real truth there is, is the truth which is at the core of who we are as human beings—our identity lies in Christ and in him alone.

It is worth giving some real thought and prayer to the possibility each of us may have some places in our thinking, our beliefs, our way of living and working, in which we may be terribly, horribly wrong. This is the call God gives us to repentance—to turn around and go the other way—to start seeing God for Who he really is and ourselves for who we really are.

To confess this truth and to humbly admit our need for God’s grace—this is a good thing. On the other side, we will find ourselves in the midst of warm, loving relationship with God and others—and this is what we were created for in the first place. As image-bearers of God as Father, Son and Spirit, we reflect that divine relationship. And this is the best possible place we could find ourselves. And “being right” isn’t what gets us there—“being rightly related” does, and Jesus took care of that for us and offers it to us in the gift of his Spirit.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for calling us into relationship with you and making it possible for us to be rightly related with you and with others through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us each the grace and humility to be open to and willing to admit to the possibility we might be wrong, or at the least, in need of a change of mind and heart. You know the truth in every instance, and you know how things really are and need to be. So, do indeed, Lord, make all things right as you have promised you would in Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6–8 NASB

A Citizen’s Prayer

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sky

by Linda Rex

One of the concerns I have as I watch the political debate and the community of faith’s response to it is the constant appeal to Christians in this nation to work through prayer and righteous living to make America great again. There is a subtle message beneath all of this rhetoric which says that somehow we are a special nation, the Israel of God, the chosen people, and if we just repent and turn back to God, everything will all be better. What I’m hearing is, all of this upheaval is just because America has turned away from God, so if all the Christians in America would humble themselves and pray, God will fix everything.

The main text used to defend this position of calling the nation (or the Christians in the nation) to prayer is 2 Chronicles 7:14: “[If] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (NASB) I have some real concerns about the way this scripture is being used to promote what are, in my opinion, some very nationalistic agendas. I also believe the way it is presented forces us back upon ourselves as the means of getting God to change our circumstances and to remove the consequences of our choices.

The desire to have America great again I assume must be because we want to live freely and abundantly in this nation we call home. It would indeed be a good thing to be able to practice our faith and to enjoy our freedoms without fear or oppression—and for the most part, we’ve been able to do that in this country. But there are forces at work which are making it more and more difficult for us to do this in this country, and that is what drives this need to ensure our domestic felicity, so that our “happy home” will continue to be just that.

Whenever I hear the statement “Make America great again”, I cringe because I am reminded of how post-WWI Germany sought to make Germany great again. This was the cry of the Nazi’s which enabled them to gain political power, and enabled them to promote many of their agendas which otherwise may have been rejected by the German populace. Sadly, the German church at that time also got caught up in this nationalistic momentum to the point they gave the leadership of their church to Hitler himself, and began to promote his faith rather than the truths of the faiths as established by the early church. It was this battle Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to fight by remaining in Germany when he could have stayed safely in America.

The point is, we need to get rid of our nationalistic focus and turn back to Jesus Christ as being the central “Who” of this whole matter. Looking at this particular passage honestly, through sound exegesis, would help us to do that if we were willing. So let’s begin by reading the passage in the context in which it was originally written:

“Then the LORD appeared to Solomon at night and said to him, ‘I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a house of sacrifice. ‘If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayer offered in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that My name may be there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually.’” (2 Chronicles 7:12–16 NASB)

The first thing we see is this was a statement God made to King Solomon after his prayer at the dedication of the temple he built in Jerusalem. God was explaining he had chosen the temple as a place for sacrifices to be offered to him just as Solomon had asked him to. The Lord would hear and answer the prayers of his people Israel when they would humbly seek his face in prayer and turn away from evil. The God, whose Name is Father, Son and Spirit, placed his name upon that house and affirmed his eyes and heart would be there as well.

This whole conversation took place within the covenant relationship of God with his people Israel. This was a reaffirmation of that covenant in which God included this house of worship in his relationship with Israel out of his gracious love toward them. Nowhere in this conversation do we read anything about the nation of America—it did not exist back then, nor was it included at that particular moment in this conversation. The whole discussion was with regard to God’s covenant relationship with his chosen people, Israel, and his desire to love them and to receive their worship and prayer.

When we read the continuing story of God’s children Israel, we find they did not honor their part of their covenant with God, and in time even Solomon’s temple was overrun and destroyed. They did not have the heart and will to love and obey God. They did not humble themselves, repent and pray, or the destruction of the nation would have been delayed as it was in the time of King Hezekiah and King Josiah, who led God’s people into a place of repentance and renewal. Instead, Israel and Judah ended up losing everything God had given them in his gracious love.

This passage, we’ve seen, was a conversation God was having with the king of the nation of Israel with regards to a temple which was eventually destroyed and replaced with another one many years later. Some exiles made their way back, thanks to the Persian king Cyrus, and the temple and the city wall of Jerusalem were rebuilt. In time, a baby was born in Bethlehem, who was the true Son of God and would fulfill in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, all the promises made to Israel, for he stood in their place.

Jesus Christ came as the Israel of God, the Son of God, Abba’s Word, who was both God and man. We see Jesus, who had no sin, repenting and being baptized for his people Israel, and for us, and we see him sharing in Israel’s wilderness wanderings by facing the evil one during forty days of fasting in the wilderness of Judea. Jesus lived the life of obedience, humility and prayer Israel was called to live, but never was able to. In his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus fulfilled all of the covenant God had made with Israel—he did what they never were able to do.

Ultimately, we see Jesus after his resurrection, standing in the presence of God as high priest of Israel and of all humanity, bearing in his being the names of all people before Abba in the Spirit, being the One who is truly humble who prays in the Spirit and in truth for each and every person in our place and on our behalf. It is Jesus’ prayer which Abba hears and answers, and each and every prayer we give is caught up in Christ’s prayers and made acceptable to the Father.

In this same Christ, the barriers between human beings were and are torn down. We learn in Acts the early church had to face the reality God did not distinguish between Jews and Gentiles when it came to having a relationship with God or each other. All nationalism was thrown out the window and replaced with the reality we are all a part of the body of Christ by the Spirit. All were included in God’s grace when it was given, and all are called to faith in Christ and offered eternal life—knowing Abba and his Son whom he sent.

The life we live, no matter our race, ethnicity, nation, tribe and tongue, is bound up in Christ and is held in him in God. Whatever good deeds we do, whatever repentance we may muster up, all comes first from God through Christ in the Spirit. It is Christ’s prayers and intercession which will bring about change in America.

But Christ is concerned about a whole lot more than just this nation. He is concerned about all of humanity. And he is a whole lot more concerned about our spiritual transformation and the furtherance of his kingdom than he is about whether or not America is the most prosperous, paradise on earth. This world is passing away. But our relationship with God, whatever it is, transcends this physical world and will last beyond it. And this is what God wants us to invest our effort, time and energy in.

Abba has work he is doing through Christ in this world. He’s sent Christ on a mission of reconciliation with God and man to be worked out into every part of life by the Spirit. We can participate in this through our humility, repentance and prayer—but apart from Christ and the work of the Spirit, our humility, repentance and prayer is worthless. It’s just a bunch of hot air and will not change a thing, except to make us exhausted, and to fill us with disappointment when things don’t go as we expect.

In a nation obsessed with nationalism and power of the state, the apostle Paul instructed his people to pray for their leaders so they could live and preach the gospel in peace. He also reminded them their loyalty was to God first, and not to the nation. We are citizens of heaven, he said. These are words we can take to heart today, because we also are citizens of the kingdom of God, and are seeking a peaceful environment in which to preach and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But we need to see this as our participation in what Jesus Christ is doing in the world today as we share in his mission of reconciliation. It is his work as our intercessor and high priest which will make the difference in the world today. It is his Spirit who calls us back to him, to repentance and faith. It is Abba who pours into us and our world a different heart and mind. We share in the work of the Trinity as God brings about healing and change. In my mind, this is the heart of this passage, and how we should read and apply it today.

“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:1–4 NASB

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.” Philippians 3:20–21 NASB

Our Response to God and his Grace

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Stream Scene from trip to AR, taken by Linda Rex
Stream Scene from trip to AR, taken by Linda Rex

by Linda Rex

At our last group meeting in Hermitage we talked about the concept of inclusion. We in Grace Communion International have been accused of being universalists due to our belief that God has brought all humanity into union with himself through Jesus Christ and has made his transforming Spirit available to all. The key element to this discussion is humanity’s individual response to the gift of salvation he is offering us in Jesus Christ. (For an excellent discussion of inclusion and our acceptance in Christ, see this article on the Grace Communion International website: https://www.gci.org/jesus/acceptance.)

So, how does a person respond to this gift of grace? As I was asked earlier this week: “How is the response to Jesus different from someone saying the sinner’s prayer? I thought that the sinner’s prayer was you making the decision to accept Christ and you bridging the gap between yourself and God. How is the response to Jesus’s acceptance different?

This is a very important question and it speaks to the whole understanding of separation vs union with Christ. Saying the sinner’s prayer is indeed seen as bridging the gap between you and God, with the idea of repentance and faith bringing about a change in our position–from separation into union. It requires the process of repentance, faith, baptism, new behavior in order to be valid. Dr. Wauchope in his series on “God, the Who and Why” (there is a link for it on my blog site), explains how this method of bridging the gap between the spiritual world and our human world actually has its roots in Aristotle and the philosophers. It is as though we change the heavenly realities by our human efforts–which we know is a falsehood. Only God can change God.

So what does it mean that we respond to Jesus? Do we need to say the sinner’s prayer? I don’t believe that a particular prayer is necessary–the Ethiopian merely asked whether and where he could be baptized, and Philip baptized him. I think that is significant.

Baptism isn’t done in order to change our status with God. It is done as a sharing in Christ’s baptism, a sharing in his life and death. Peter called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins–what Jesus did when he was baptized for us in our place. He was calling them to receive the gift already given to them in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus–to participate in what Christ had already done for them.

In other words, at some point God is going to bring each of us to the point where we see that apart from Jesus, we have no hope–that without Jesus we are lost. Jesus said in his preaching–repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (ie. I’m the Messiah and I’m here bringing in God’s kingdom), and he told his disciples to preach the Word, teach the Word and to baptize and disciple. That means there is a point of turning away from ourselves and our world and our way of living and being and a turning to Christ (ie. repent and believe, and receive the gift of life in him), at which point, symbolically through baptism, we identify with Christ, acknowledging that our life is in him.

This is why when someone comes to me and says, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to be a Christian, I ask them, “Have you talked with God about this?” And then I will pray with them and encourage them to pray about their commitment to Christ and his will. And I will then talk with them about baptism as a sign of their commitment, as an acknowledgement of their participation in Christ’s finished work.

But Barth and the Torrance’s are real clear that there is a definite turning away from oneself and a turning to Christ at some point. It’s a point in time and a process where a person acknowledges their need for and reliance upon Christ and a turning away from themselves and their ways, and a turning to Christ, and a submission to him as Lord of their life. This can take some time with people and may occur well after their initial understanding at baptism.

This is why discipleship of new believers is so important. They need to come to know and rely on Jesus and to begin to live their life in him. It is his life they are participating in–the new life they live is defined by Christ’s life, not by them. A person’s response to Jesus is, therefore, not just an event in time, but a whole turning of their life and being away from themselves and to Christ throughout the rest of their life–as Jesus said, a dying to self and a living in him.

As you can see, the latter approach does not at any point bring up some form of separation, but rather says that Jesus is our life. In God, through Christ and in the Spirit, we live and move and have our being. Christ did for us in our place all that is needed–so believe it and receive it, and then live it out. It’s all in terms of participating in the life Christ made for us in our humanity as a sharing in his divinity. I think this is a much more hopeful and joyful word of life.

The following is a response to a related question, “Does the Holy Spirit work on each person individually at some level continually or is God not working with everyone yet?”:

Sometimes our inclusive language can be a little too free. Yes, we need to keep the concept of inclusion in our language. All are included in God’s life and love. That is a given. All are united with God in Christ.

But our calling and full participation in that is something the Spirit does in a unique time and way for each of us. The communion of the Spirit is a different story from our union with God in Christ. The communion of the Spirit is experienced by the body of Christ through whom God is bearing witness to the world about Jesus in the Spirit today.

It does not mean that all do not have the Spirit but rather that there is an awakening of some to the calling to bear witness to Jesus Christ as a community of faith. We want to let all people know they are included in God’s love and life. But the thing is–if a person is living and being in a way that does not coincide with how God is and how Christ is for them, then how can they fully participate in God’s love and life? There is a call to repentance–to a change of mind and heart in how we look at God and who we think he is and a turning away from ourselves to Jesus, trusting in him for life and godliness rather than in anything else. The Holy Spirit does a work in a person’s heart, mind and life that is transformational–it is real.

My friend Bob likes to say, “all are included, they just don’t know it yet.” That’s not really a bad thing to say–but there is still the call to repent and believe. Barth and Torrance say the best way to present the gospel is to say, “God loves you so much he sent his Son to live, die, rise again in your place. He’s done all that is needed for you to be reconciled to God and redeemed. Jesus Christ stands in your place, interceding for you with the Father, and he gives you his Spirit so you can share in God’s life and love. You are loved and forgiven. [ie you are included] Therefore, repent and believe.”

The gospel continues to require a call to repent and believe, even when all are included. The thing is, this repentance and this faith is taken up in Jesus Christ just like everything else–it comes as a gift from God through Christ in the Spirit. It’s not on us as humans to find something within ourselves to be able to repent and believe. Christ gives us his own repentance and faith as a gift of God through the Spirit. So it’s not all up to us–it’s all of grace. Really the only response left for us gratitude or grateful obedience, and even that we participate in with Christ. It’s all of grace.

When we think of the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of inclusion, we see that because the Spirit is poured out on all, he is available to all. He is working even now in and with each person. But as far as the transformational work the Spirit does in bringing someone to faith in Christ and into the body of Christ and into the obedience that comes with faith, that is something that is unique–it is a setting apart of certain persons for the purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to share the gospel. All are included in the kingdom of God, but not all are willing and obedient participants.

Father, I thank you for including all in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to receive and fully participate in your precious gift. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mk 1:14–15 NIV

God In the Midst of the Dying

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In the Midst of Dying audio by Linda Rex
by Linda Rex

I’m seeing more and more that what we unconsciously say and do often reflects a belief about who God is and who we are in relation to him that is unhealthy and even wrong. Even our language as followers of Christ is often filled with a deep anxiety that God’s not going to come through for us. Deep down we believe that if we don’t get things exactly right, the outcome is not going to be good.

I hear this a lot of times when people are talking about the growth and development of things they believe God wants them to be doing, such as ministries or churches, or even families. There is an underlying belief that if they just get all their ducks in a row, so to speak, then everything will turn out wonderful. If they follow this particular plan or complete these specific tasks in the correct order, then something awesome is going to happen. And if they don’t, all hell will break loose.

This God-concept also shows up when I talk with people about the darkness or chaos in their lives. And truly, how can I blame someone for seeing God in this way, when everything they are experiencing or have experienced in their life tells them it is true? What could I say that would convince them otherwise?

I know what it feels like to have everything you believe in fall into pieces at your feet. I know the pain of deep betrayal by those you trusted and counted on, including God. I know how it feels to be surrounded with mountains of problems that can’t be climbed. The despair that goes with such hopelessness can be overwhelming.

Whether we like it or not, we are faced with these ultimate questions over and over in life: Is God trustworthy and good? Does he really love me? Will God come through for me when I need him? Can I count on him? Does he really forgive sinners?

For whatever reason, we are never fully satisfied with the truth about who God is and who we are in relation to him, no matter how many times we are told it. It seems as though we have to experience the truth before we allow it to shape us and transform us. God spends our lifetimes bringing us through one circumstance after another, showing us the truth of his goodness, mercy and love.

It is refreshing to come to the realization that the whole issue about the success or failure of anything isn’t whether I’m doing it right, or someone else is doing it correctly, or whether we’re just letting God do it all himself. The real foundational paradigm is participation—sharing in relationship—doing it together. It’s not really about what you’re doing, but about doing it together, in relationship with God.

We get worried about the goodness and badness of things, and are agitated about having everything fulfill the perfect plan (whoever the architect may be). But God is interested in the process and in sharing life with us. It’s the conversations we have with him as we are doing this, the building of intimacy with him, that he cares about. It’s the knowing and being known that matters.

I read somewhere that what children remember most about their childhoods is not necessarily the gifts they were given, but the special times they spent with certain people doing things that were meaningful. It was the relational sharing, the sacrifices made, the unconditional love and grace in the midst of brokenness that was most significant.

Likewise, it is the abusive and harmful significant relationships that are so devastating to children. When authority figures or trusted people do not image God’s love and grace, but the brokenness of our humanity to children, it causes them to question these very core beliefs about God and who they are in the midst of such a dangerous, chaotic world.

We find ourselves then, as grownups, faced with all the same stuff, and our response hinges upon these fundamental beliefs about God, ourselves, and each other. William Paul Young said recently at Grace Communion International’s Converge 2015 conference that it took him 55 years to get the face of his father off the face of God. Personally, it has taken me much of my own life to see God in some way other than how I believed a father was, since my only experience with a father was with my own dad.

Thankfully, as we grow in our relationship with God, he works to change how we think and feel about him as Father, Son and Spirit. That’s what’s involved in repentance—changing our minds and hearts about God, who he is and who we are in relationship with him. We begin to see how we were totally wrong and we turn around and go the other way.

It takes great faith to be caught in the midst of devastating circumstances and still be able to say to God, “I trust you.” It takes a deep assurance of God’s love to stand strong in our relationship with God when it looks by all appearances as though he has turned and walked away. It takes great humility to allow God to work out circumstances in whatever way he thinks is best, when we would rather take the easy road, or go our own way.

This Holy Week teaches us that Jesus paved the way in all these areas. Even though he asked his Father to find a way different than the cross, Jesus yielded to his Father’s will and wisdom and took the high road to the cross. His final words to God, even when he was experiencing the silence of our humanity, was that he entrusted his Spirit to the Father. He knew his Father well enough to know that he was not leaving him or going away. Nothing can or will divide the Trinity.

There is a deep rest that Jesus created for us in his relationship with the Father by the Spirit. He proved that even in the midst of dying and death, there is resurrection. Our God can be completely and totally trusted. His love never fails. However bleak things may look or feel, the truth is that God’s got it. He’s going all the way with us, to and through the cross and tomb, to the glory of the resurrection. In the end, all that matters is that he was with us through it all and will be with us forever.

Thank you, Father, that you are indeed who Jesus showed us you are, and that your Spirit never stops working to show us the truth about who you are. Thank you that we are held each moment in life and in death in your loving embrace, and that you have given us the hope of the resurrection. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us, just as you finished what you planned before time began through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.” Ps 22:24 NASB

Repent and Believe

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Incarnation by Linda Rex, copyright 2005
Incarnation by Linda Rex, copyright 2005

By Linda Rex
Have you ever had that experience where you were praying about something, asking God to move in some situation, and when things actually began to improve, you were still in the “I have to do something to fix this” mode? It reminds me of the story of Peter being released by the angels from prison, going to find the brethren who were praying for him, but when he knocked no one would believe it was him knocking on the door.

I have no doubt that we want God to intervene and to answer our prayers. But do we really expect him to? Do we really believe God exists and that he wants to and will intervene in our lives and circumstances?

In this culture which is so heavily wrapped around science and proving things according to empirical data, I think it is interesting that we even have scientific studies that prove that praying for the sick actually works. But why do scientific studies of such a thing? Why do we have to prove that prayer works and is helpful?

I wonder if there is a deep inner longing in each of us to experience in a real way something outside of our human existence, something beyond ourselves that is more than we could ever be and that is lovingly inclined towards us and willing to help us when we are in need. And yet if there is such a Being or Force, we most certainly don’t want them to interfere with us or to tell us what to do. We want all the benefits of such a relationship, but none of the responsibilities.

We want to have help when we need it, to have success and good health and all of the glitz and glamour of a blessed life, but we surely don’t want anyone to dictate to us how to go about obtaining it or living it. We like to do life on our own, to deal with our problems our own way, and then to blame God or karma when things don’t turn out like we expect.

And prayer seems to be that guilt thing that we think maybe we ought to do more of now and again. We know prayer would be good to do when we’re in crisis and we don’t know where else to turn. But what do we know and believe about the God who we are praying to? Do we really believe he cares and that he will give us an answer? Or are we essentially atheists or humanists in our prayer life?

There is something fundamentally wrong here, and I believe it has to do with what we believe about God. First off, it is wonderful if we can get it through our minds and hearts that God is real and that God loves us. Period. He did, does and will love us unconditionally, no matter where, when, how we find ourselves—even in the midst of the stupid stuff we do.

And God gives us grace—total, unconditional forgiveness. But in the midst of that forgiveness and acceptance is the unspoken reality that we are in need of that forgiveness. Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics often reminds his readers that inherent in our receiving forgiveness is the acknowledgement of our need for it. God offers through receiving his gift of grace the opportunity to experience a change of mind and heart. This is called repentance and faith.

One of the ways we need to experience repentance and faith in is in this area of our view of God so we see him as a loving, merciful Lord who answers our requests for help and succor. We need to come to see God as a Person who cares about every facet of our life and who is ready and willing to help.

But along with that understanding of who God is needs to come an appreciation and respect for the right he has as a living Lord to personify for us who we are to be as human beings. The lives we live ought to reflect the God he is. How we think, behave and speak ought to correspond directly to the thinking, behavior and speech of Jesus Christ as it is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Scriptures. We need to acknowledge that sometimes the mess we are in is our fault and we need to change.

Don’t get me wrong. God’s not hovering over us waiting for some reason to slap us silly since he knows we’re going to mess up. No. He loves us, and he hates anything that will mess up our understanding and experience of that love. He hates anything that will mar the beauty of his image in us. He longs for us to fully experience the love, joy and peace of a life like his that is whole, blessed and healthy.

He wants us to see him for who he really is and to live accordingly. And prayer becomes a part of that reality in our lives. Because we know him as a God who loves and forgives us, we want to know him better. Knowing him better means we begin to see things about ourselves that need changed. So we go back to him, secure in his forgiveness and love. And our relationship with God grows deeper as we are continually drawn to deeper levels of repentance and faith.

Drawing closer to God means we see more areas of our being and life that do not reflect his glory. So we surrender to God in those areas rather than resisting him. Prayer then is just a natural part of our relationship with God—he shares himself with us, we share ourselves with him, he responds, we respond—throughout our lives it goes on. But we need to be careful not to allow any part of our being or life to be a place where God is not allowed to have a say in how we think, speak or live.

I’m not talking about rules. I’m talking about a real relationship with someone who wants to do more for us than we could ever think of or ask him for. I mean being so close to God in our hearts and minds that we don’t want to wound him in anyway by the things we think, say and do. We seek only to give full expression of God’s glory in and through us in every way possible.

This is tough and it is counter-cultural. It goes against our natural human inclinations and it definitely stands in opposition to all that is dark and evil and opposes the will and purposes of God.

But God stands with us and promises us that he will never leave us or forsake us. He is committed to our becoming all we were meant to be as his adopted children in Christ and by his Spirit. And he won’t quit until he is done. We can count on that.

Holy God, please forgive us our wrong-headed views and thoughts of you. Grant us the ability to see you with new eyes and hearts. Open up to us a new understanding of who you are and how your heart toward us is only good and loving. Grant us repentance and faith, through Jesus Christ and in your Spirit. Amen.

“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20–21