If There is No Sin, There is No Grace

Be of sin, the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure – Augustus Toplady

There is a hesitance, actually more like a firm resistance, to calling any behavior, “sin.” When the issue of sexual lifestyles are discussed, even evangelicals are wary of labeling any one behavior as sin. It’s the word we want to run far, far way from. Nobody sins anymore. They make mistakes. They were born that way. They are misunderstood.

The Bible, however, has clear categories. And some things are sin. Sexual license is sin. Murder is sin. Libel is sin. Gossip is sin. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t just say that humans commit sin, but that humans are actually, by nature, sinners. That is they aren’t naturally good people who sometimes fall off the wagon and sin. We are sinners by nature.

But what about grace? Isn’t the church supposed to be about spreading the good news that God has accepted sinners by grace? Isn’t the message of the church that God’s grace covers even the vilest of sins? Yes, it is. And this is a message we should shout from the rooftops. It should be the core of what we evangelicals do and say.

Here’s the rub. If you stop acknowledging that some choices are sinful, you stop needing that wonderful thing called grace. In other words, if everything is okay, is just a different lifestyle, but not actually a gross violation of the righteousness of God, then why would you need grace? You wouldn’t, because nobody is doing anything wrong.

This is why the Church must talk about sin and about grace. At times, followers of Jesus have talked more about sin, as if God was violently angry at sinners and they have no hope. As if we were gleeful, like the Pharisees, to catch someone abusing God’s standard. This is the wrong message and denies the gospel.

And yet, we seem to be in a moment in the church when we want to talk about grace in a way that acts like sin is no big deal. Let’s not talk about sin, after all we’re suppose to be the people of grace. Wait a minute, though. If there is no sin, there is no need for grace.

The point I’m making here is this: Unless I realize I’m a sinner deserving of God’s just wrath against sin, I cannot experience the richness and fullness of His grace. If I deny my sin, I shut the door on grace. This was Jesus’ message to the woman at the well. Yes, you are a woman who is living in sin. Yes, you are just the kind of person I came to save. 

We have to acknowledge both realities. This is why talk of the word, “sin” should not frighten us who believe in the gospel. Because it was not mistakes or missteps or misunderstandings that Christ came to conquer and defeat. He came to defeat sin and sin’s awful child: death.

I’m not proud of my sin, but I’m glad to recognize that I’m a sinner. Because sinners are the only people eligible for Jesus’ unlimited grace.

Friday Five: Paul Rude

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Last week I read an excellent article on the Gospel Coalition blog on the significance of everyday work. At times, pastors and ministry professionals tend to cast “secular” vocations as a sort of second-tier calling. I loved Paul’s perspective and asked him to join me today for a chat around this topic and his new book, Significant Work
Paul Rude is a ministry consultant, speaker, and founder of Everyday Significance, an organization dedicated to helping people connect Christ-centered faith to everyday life. Before launching Everyday Significance, Paul spent eight years working in missions as a ministry leader. Prior to that, he spent a decade in the adrenalin rush of Fortune 500 corporate finance–and loved it. When he’s not speaking or consulting, you might find him rafting whitewater rivers or climbing mountains. Paul lives in rural Alaska with his wife, Misty, and their five kids.

There seems to be a renaissance, of sorts, among evangelicals around the doctrine of work, with Tom Nelson‘s Work Matters, Gene Veith’s work, Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor and now your book. Why is this issue so important?

Hardworking, everyday Christians are tired of feeling like second-class citizens in the church.

Deep down, we know something is wrong with the paradigm that limits eternal significance to the short list of jobs we traditionally define as “ministry.”

Most of us earn our daily bread in the marketplace, not in religious ministry. If we assume that only acts of “ministry” (teaching Sunday school, witnessing, etc.) are significant to God, then we live two separate lives. We live a sliver of life that makes a difference in eternity, but everything else we do, the great bulk of life, has no eternal value—or worse, it’s a necessary evil.

As we become accustomed to living two separate lives, our faith gradually loses all relevance to our weekday lives. Church is church; work is work. We navigate between two unrelated spheres, two value systems, two moral codes. We begin to confine our faith to that sliver of time we spend doing “religious stuff.” The rest of the time—the great bulk of the time—our faith is off duty. It sits on the sidelines, unconsidered and unexpressed.

Now, at last, theologians, pastors, and authors are pushing back against this paradigm. We are trying to articulate the robust biblical doctrine of work. It’s a doctrine that gives extraordinary significance to the work of truckers and accountants and homemakers. Millions of people are discovering that Jesus Christ is Lord of all seven days of the week—not just Sunday.

You talk about a class system in the church where missionaries and pastors are “really serving the Lord” and lay people are sort of “walking wallets” to fund God’s work ,but whose daily job has no significance. How does this view conflict with God’s mission?

If we were all pastors and missionaries, the human race would starve to death. So we must ask: Did the sovereign God of the universe create a cruel game of musical chairs, where 90 percent of us must work in meaningless jobs so that 10 percent of us can work in significant jobs—ministry jobs? The absurdity of this class system is self-evident.

We make little of God and much of religion when we claim that only pastors and missionaries are serving the Lord with their work.

God’s mission is bigger than our job titles. And he doesn’t play cruel little games with significance.

His mission encompasses far more than simply preaching and witnessing. We see this when we read the rest of the Bible. The Bible begins and ends with creation. Our God is the Creator and Ruler of all things, and he made us in his image. We reflect his glory and character when we create things, when we fill the earth and subdue it, when we tend it—when we work!

How can pastor’s empower the laity to find purpose and mission in their daily work?

Talk about it with their congregations. It’s that simple. Oh, sure, there are many other things a pastor can do. But most pastors need to take the giant first step of initiating the conversation.

Surveys repeatedly tell us that pastors almost never preach or talk about everyday marketplace work—the activity that consumes the greatest portion of the congregation’s time and energy, the activity that puts them in direct contact with the world. This creates a huge disconnect between the heavenly bliss of Sunday and the gritty reality of Monday.

What about parenting? How can Christian families instill a sense of significance and worth in the everyday work life?

My grandmother was awesome, the coolest granny in California—she loved parasailing and polar bear swims, and she loved Jesus Christ.

But one day she told us, “My greatest hope is that all of you will grow up to serve the Lord as missionaries and pastors.”

She meant well. But her words dumped a crushing load of expectation into the heart of a kid who desperately wanted to please his parasailing granny. My dad wisely pulled me aside and corrected grandma’s well-meaning, but misguided, intentions. So no damage was done in my case. But what if my dad had agreed with her?

Parents and grandparents: guard your tongues! Do you carelessly imply that pastors are more significant than truckers? Do you imply that CEO’s are more successful than carpenters? Ouch! I preach and write on these topics, yet I easily fall into this trap. This is tough; we must steadfastly guard our tongues, as well as our hearts.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from your book?

I passionately hope the reader will lay hold of—will live, breathe, trust, know, and utterly experience—the life-giving freedom of the gospel. I want him or her to see how the gospel gives extraordinary value to their regular, everyday work—and to their lives.

Because of Jesus Christ, our undiscovered gifts, our unapplauded work, our forgotten names, and our unsung lives all matter. They matter to God. They matter for his glory. They’ll be part of his masterpiece for all eternity—and oh, what an astonishing, breathtaking wonder it will be!

Let’s Not Trade Unity for Clicks

I’m writing this post even as I’m supposed to be writing my sermon for Sunday. But there is just something God has put on my heart and so deeply convicted me about that I have to share it.

A few days ago I had a conversation with a wonderful, well-known pastor in my area. He’s a pastor in every sense of the calling. Kind, loving, shepherding, caring, gracious, studious, biblical, evangelical, evangelistic. All those things.

We had a wide-ranging conversation out of which I gleaned so many good things for my life and ministry. But one that I cannot let go of was this. We were discussing a controversial issue in the Church worldwide. I won’t mention the issue, but it’s a big one that is less important than orthodoxy and yet still very important to many good people. Personally I think it’s a huge issue. He and I agreed on the issue, but perhaps to varying degrees.

But there was a point he made that stuck with me. He said, “There is so much heat around this issue and it is hurting the Church.” I hung on this for a while and chewed on when I got home and am still chewing on it. He was right. On both sides of this issue there is a lot of heat.

I read a ton of blogs from a wide variety of perspectives in evangelicalism. I learn and grow from some of the many practitioners who write well and share important theological and practical information. I’m thankful for this new area of new media, for the openness of blogging, and for social media. And yet I sense, at least in my generation, among evangelicals who care deeply about issues, a dangerous gotcha mentality that is not healthy for Church unity. I’m not talking about all voices. I’m talking about a few voices on both sides of some major issues. But these are loud voices.

What bothers me is that it seems that we are tempted to trade unity for blog traffic. Let’s face it, controversy sells. It builds platforms. It garners book contracts. Write up a piece calling out a famous pastor for something and suddenly you have people on all sides batting it around. I’m not above this. Nobody is above doing this. That’s why I didn’t mention names.

But I really feel like there is, among some of us, a spirit of nitpicking, McCarthyism  and arrogance. We like it when a famous pastor goes over the line in criticizing the President, because it gives us a chance to beat our chest on social media and distance ourselves from that pastor and “not be one of those kinds of Christians.” We like that. We like when a famous religious figure continues to say weird things on his TV show. We like it because he makes us look normal by comparison and “not one of those kinds of Christians.” Some like it when they troll through a famous pastor’s thousands of online sermons (that he may have put there at his own church’s expense) and find a clip that has something articulated in a not-so-good way. We like to spread that on social media and blog about it so everyone comes to the blog and thereby we have increased the platform.

I don’t think this helps the cause of Christ. I don’t think this promotes unity in the body. Please hear me. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t correct public declarations of bad doctrine. I’m not saying robust dialogue and critique are not good for the Church. I’m not saying we should turn a blind eye to abuses of spiritual authority. We shouldn’t. We should vigorously defend orthodoxy in every generation. We should oppose unhealthy ideas contrary to Scripture.

But I think it would help if every Christian writer, blogger, pastor–anyone with a modicum of a platform–would periodically engage in self-examination. We should ask ourselves, “Are we building our audience, platform based on critiques that hurt Christ’s body?” A few months ago I was offered a chance to review a book I vehemently disagreed with. I really wanted to write that review. I’m sure it would have brought blog traffic. And yet I really was convicted by the Spirit to not do it, because my motivations were not right. And so I didn’t.

I think we all need to face up to the idea that Christians are sinners. The Church, made up of Christians who are sinners, will have a lot of imperfections, blind spots, bad things. They are not really all that hard to find. Some are glaring. And you can make a living, a career out of being the person who finds them, blogs about them, writes books about them, etc. But is that really a life worth living?

How God Uses Relationships to Make You Better

Everyone wants to be better. Self-improvement gurus call it, well, self-improvement. Wise people and many in the church call it growth. The Bible calls this process sanctification. And for the Christian, sanctification is not merely the process by which you become a nice, better person. Pretty much all religions and even quasi-non religions do that. Even Richard Dawkins, I’m thinking, is okay with growth.

Sanctification is something deeper, better, richer. The Bible asserts a bold idea that Christians–those who believe, know and follow Jesus Christ–have something deeper going onside them. They have God in them through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Christianity, at it’s truest form, is not really about getting better by self-improvement, but about dying to your old self and seeing the life of Christ form in you. It’s a spiritual thing. It’s a supernatural thing. But how does God accomplish this? Or, perhaps a better question, what tools does God use?

Well, we know first of all that the agent of change is the Holy Spirit. And we know that He uses the Word of God to penetrate our hearts, cut us deep, and bring about change. The Word delivered, both in private reading and corporate preaching, brings about renewed thinking and renewed thinking brings about new behaviors, new loves, new affections.

But there is another tool that we often overlook, a powerful factor in sanctification. We change through God-ordained, dynamic relationships. In fact, I might argue that relationships, outside of the Word itself, are the primary instrument by which God changes us. This is why the New Testament is pretty clear that faith in Christ is best lived out in community.

Let me explain this. When I was a single guy, I thought I was a pretty spiritual guy. I did my devotions every day. I was faithful attending church. I read widely. But then I got married. This new relationship, a daily, 24 hour/7 days a week committment to another person, revealed areas of sin and selfishness I didn’t know I had. And my committment to my marriage forced me to change. In other words, God used my wife, who is very different than me, to change me. As a husband, I’m forced to adapt to Angela. I have to die to some of my needs and desires. I have to repent, daily, of sins against her and have to forgive, daily her sins against me. I grow. I change. And ten years later, though far, far from perfect, I’m an altogether different man.

This process only ramped up when I had children. Four of them. They test my patience, my leadership, reveal further selfishness and sins in me. And so the process of sanctification grows. And in much smaller ways, God has used coworkers, staffers, colleagues, family members, even those who’ve hurt me. They are not here by accidents, but are instruments of sanctification for my good.

Community is where the gospel is most lived out. Every day you rub up against certain people who are different than you. And you have to love, tolerate, forgive, repent. You have to adapt, sacrifice and grow.

Now you might say that this process is the same for those who are not Christians and to a certain extent that is true. But for believers, we have the Spirit in us, convicting us of our sin. We have the gospel dynamic in our relationships, motivating and empower us to forgiveness and grace.

Why does this matter? This matters because it affects our perspective. We should see other people in our lives not as irritants, but as divine tools sent by God for our sanctification. So that irascible boss–perhaps God put him in your world to chip off parts of your old self that needed chipping off. That troublesome child that tests your patience. Perhaps its God wanting to work on your heart and soul to bear the fruits of the Spirit.

Every single relationship for a Christian is an opportunity for sanctification and growth. This is why the idea of Western individual spirituality–me and God–actually hurts the process of change.

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