Two Cats

For many years, we have had two cats – brother and sister (though they look nothing alike!)


That’s Spike on the left. Mittens is on the right.

They not only look different – they also have quite different dispositions.

When there’s food involved, Mittens will come and rub up against me. She’ll show the bare minimum of affection, based on immediate felt need. Once she’s fed, she pretty much keeps her distance – always a bit skittish, and never wanting to be picked up and held. She’s not hostile – just not warm and cuddly.

No-one would conclude that at-ease trust is her strong suit.

Mittens is as pretty as all get out, with lovely soft fur – and I wish she’d just relax and enjoy our company more. We care for her, but can’t really express it very directly, because she’s more into a paws-length relationship.

Until she needs her daily bread. Then we’re….useful, I guess.

Spike, on the other hand, is our lover. Just look at that face! When I’m on the deck trying to read, he’ll hop up into my lap for some extended petting time. Spike purrs freely. He likes to be brushed. He initiates contact. He doesn’t mind being picked up and held.

He just wants to be friends.

Two cats, same family, same master who cares for them both.

There’s a lesson here. I am far too much like Mittens in my disposition toward God.

I think Spike has it right.

The apostle Paul was bummed out.

Here, he had proclaimed the gospel of grace – the good news of Jesus Christ – among the Gentiles of Galatia, and many received the truth gladly.

Formerly outsiders, now invited into the family of God? Previously excluded from the nation of Israel, but now given free access to God through the Messiah - the Savior not only of the Jews, but of the whole world? What a marvel!

They received the gift of God. Emmanuel – God with us – anywhere, everywhere, no longer just among people of a physical nation.

But there was a problem.

Some misguided Jewish believers came in and taught that these Gentiles needed Jesus Plus. Specifically, they needed to become Jews also.

You know, circumcision and all that. Ouch. “Jesus is just all right with me,” sang the Doobie Brothers. These folks had a similar approach. Jesus is great, but…not enough.

Substitutionary atonement and gracious forgiveness and divine adoption – the gospel isn’t enough. We need more than Jesus to make us whole before God! We need external rituals and signs. It’s not sufficient to be grafted spiritually into the trunk of Abraham – the price of admission was also a foreskin and a litany of legacy Jewishness that had already been fulfilled in Christ.

Going backward, in this case, was not going forward. It was apostasy to embrace any form of a Jesus Plus gospel. That’s because any plus is a huge minus, detracting from an all-sufficient Savior whose free, complete, and unfettered grace needs no addition of human efforts and forms.

Paul’s language was unsparing. He wished that those who taught the necessity of a physical circumcision would – gulp! – just go ahead and castrate themselves.

He knew that any form of Jesus Plus = a fall from grace (Galatians 5:3-12).

In our day and age, many Christians won’t be subjected to the Judaizing form of Jesus Plus. But there are many other shape-shifting forms this error takes.

What’s the one that afflicts me most? Jesus Plus Steve-has-to-get-his-act-completely-together-with-all-the-right-beliefs-and-behaviors-right-now-or-else. Jesus plus fear-driven perfectionism. It’s the insidious mingling of justification and sanctification.

In theory, and theologically, I fully understand the distinction between the one-time and permanent pronouncement of a right standing before God based on faith alone (justification), and the gradual process of conformity to His image (sanctification). But in my heart, I still have this default setting that irrationally looks to Jesus Plus how-I’m-measuring-up-right-now for my comfort and peace.

Decades after turning to Him, I still need the gospel of grace. You?



When you approach Jesus, His Word, and His Spirit, with the paring knife of pride, ready to cut off anything that displeases you, there is no hope that you are His disciple.

When you, together with Jesus and His Word and His Spirit, approach your own heart with the paring knife of sanctification, ready to cut off anything that displeases Him, you are certainly His disciple.

If you were trapped behind a large stone and all you had was a feather with which to free yourself, what would you be an hour later?


A day later, a week later – it doesn’t matter. The tool isn’t right for the job. It’s powerless.

And that’s what every form of external, self-driven righteousness is. Powerless.

Good works? Powerless. Obedience to the Law of God? Powerless. Religious observances? Powerless.

The rock of God’s righteous requirements can only do one thing – teach us how impotent we truly are. So that we are finally ready for an all-powerful Savior.

But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our tutor until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (Galatians 3:22-25).

If you are feeling the futility of self-driven righteousness – if you sense that the feather of your efforts cannot possibly be equal to the weight of your sins – then you are in the right place. You are being “tutored” by the Law so that you despair of anything less than the gift of God, a righteousness earned and granted by another. You are learning that feathers do not move rocks.

Only when we finally give up on our own efforts at righteousness do we cry out for the righteousness of another, one who imparts His salvation by faith alone.

small_475800630The dead and the powerless do not move stones. They are imprisoned in impotence.

Jesus, having absorbed our sins through death on a cross of judgment, burst out of a rock-sealed tomb on the third day. Death-overcomer? Stone-mover? That’s the Savior I need.

He is willing and able to move your stone, your spiritual death and powerlessness, as well.

photo credit: callmetim via photopin cc

“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” – Galatians 3:3

Paul doesn’t quite say it this way, but it is certainly implied: “ARE YOU PEOPLE CRAZY???”

Rewind a bit into the historical setting: Paul had preached the gospel of free, forgiving grace through Jesus Christ to these Gentiles – they did not need to become Jews; they could not “work” their way to a reconciled relationship with God; they believed the good news and received the fulness of God’s pardon and adoption by faith alone, without any other condition.

Jesus, the great High Priest, had made the ultimate sacrifice for sins. The old Jewish rituals had been the shadow, the tutor – the substance was Christ. Becoming God’s people was a matter of believing reception.

(Paul reaches all the way back to Abraham in the following verses to show that faith was always the way God’s people were reconciled to Him, no matter what detailed Law-practices were later added for the Jewish nation).

But now, some Jewish believers had come to Galatia and were urging these Gentile brethren to be, not only believers in Jesus, but Law-keepers. Whereas God had poured out salvation and the blessing of His Spirit strictly on the basis of belief, these misguided teachers felt that the Galatians were incomplete unless the embraced a bunch of external rituals and practices that were never meant for them.

To summarize their teaching - God’s ongoing blessing and your ongoing salvation is contingent on keeping all these rules.

Paul explodes. “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?”

Most of us are not being influenced by Judaizers, but we still slip into works-righteousness. At one point, we saw our helpless and polluted state and realized we had nothing – NOTHING – to offer God. We could only cry out for mercy; and marvel of marvels, He exchanged our rags for a robe of righteousness, our sins for the holy perfection of Christ.

We abandoned our powerless works to embrace an all-powerful Savior.

Here’s where we slip: we forget that we still have nothing – NOTHING – to offer God. Our works (even Christianized works) are just as empty and powerless as they ever were. We came to receive salvation by faith alone; we come each day to experience the grace of ongoing salvation by faith alone. Grace plus nothing is our food and drink.

- If you have been given an airline ticket to California, will you instead hop on a lawnmower for your trip?

- If you are given all the gold in Fort Knox, will you then take a minimum-wage job to pay your bills?

- If Christ has given us a full pardon and exchanged our sin and corruption for His righteousness, will we now rely on a Code of Conduct to maintain it?

Jesus was, and is, fully devoted to His Father, and infinitely pleasing to Him. Your devotion (and your devotional works) do not add to your standing, nor can they replace Jesus as your only standing before God.

This is when switching horses mid-stream is stupid. You don’t trade a thoroughbred for an asthmatic 3-legged pony that’s deaf and blind.

If someone teaches Christ PLUS ___________, hit the delete key.

Joyful obedience and principled discipline are an ever-present part of the Christian journey. But our efforts and our external conformity can never be our hope. We never outgrow grace; we never depart from faith as our foundation. The promise of God is received by faith at the beginning, throughout the middle, and at the end of our pilgrimage. The Spirit who began this great work in us will complete it.

See also – Albert Mohler on Moralism is Not the Gospel (but many Christians think it is)

Really – the gospel of Jesus Christ is crazy talk.

God becoming man and dwelling among men for a season? Dying (in shame and ignominy) and rising again? Awakening of dead and corrupt hearts to newness of life?

What is God thinking here? Even the apostle Paul calls the gospel “foolishness” to those who have not been supernaturally enlightened. And that it is. Crazy talk.

Then there’s this whole overturning of everything we would expect about how a person gains a righteous standing before God. It’s not “do.” It’s “believe.”

Consult any other religion (even superficially “Christian” ones) and you’ll find a whole list of dogmas to adhere to, behaviors to change, and rituals to perform. Like Avis, you have to just try harder. Fill in the blank of your favorite religion: you’ll find soul diseases wrongly diagnosed and band-aids wrongly applied.

The gospel diagnoses the problem pretty drastically: dead in sin.

It’s pretty hard to fix dead.

And…how do you remove the accumulated guilt of a lifestyle of not-loving-God-first? That’s kind of a big problem right there, to go along with soul-dead.

So our default setting is to try harder. And here’s where the crazy talk gets even louder.

“…knowing that a man is not justified (brought into a right standing with the holy God) by works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we (Jews who thought they could become righteous by law-keeping) have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” -Galatians 2:16

In the context, the apostle is demonstrating that God makes Jews and Gentiles righteous before Him in exactly the same way – faith in the risen Messiah, not vain works. Life is found through the life-giving power of a risen Savior, not by external religion. Pardon is not earned, it is granted; having been paid for by a substitute who died for the sins of others.

And it’s all received by humble faith. Needy sinners of any and all backgrounds, feeling their guilt and soul-death, calling on the Lord Jesus Christ for pardon and life, instead of relying on law-keeping.

Crazy talk. Dead people receiving spiritual life and eternal grace through another. Maybe that’s why the word “gospel” = “good news.”

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is not longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” -Galatians 2:20

Practicing Stewardship: Walking in Freedom 

If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. - John 8:36

Spiritual bondage darkens our eyes, so that we do not see God for who He is.

Jesus liberates us by removing those cataracts.

Spiritual bondage deadens our hearts, so that we do not believe what God says.

Jesus rejuvenates our cold, lifeless hearts by giving His Spirit.

Salvation is freedom. Freedom from bondage, and freedom to heartfelt obedience.

What is financial freedom? It is not having a million-dollar retirement portfolio. It is not a six-figure job with a gold-plated benefits package. All of those things can disappear in an instant.

Financial freedom is “owning” nothing. Financial freedom = open hands to receive from God, and open hands to give to God and others.

The closed fist, wrapped around perishing earthly riches, is bondage.

When Jesus saves a man or woman, He opens their eyes. He opens their hearts. And, He opens their hands.

The liberation of the gospel moves from ear, to mind, to heart, to every part of our being – yes, even to our wallets.

If money is a competing god in your life, ask the Lord to break those chains. It is His purpose to set you free.

(this is the final post in the Stewardship series. Thank you for reading!)


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