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Paul the apostle – who was Saul the persecutor of Christians before he was converted through an encounter with Jesus Christ – was a brilliant fellow.

He was one of the zealous, principled young Jewish leaders of the Pharisee sect. And he was no fan of this new movement preaching a dead, but resurrected, Messiah figure named Jesus.

The Jews, after all, were the chosen people – God’s favored nation. The gentiles on the outside were viewed – there’s no delicate way to say this – as dogs. Un-believers, un-chosen, unclean, and inferior.

Then there were those half-breed Samaritans in the north, rife with idolatry and definitely on the outs from the presence of a holy God.

And, of course, any heretical sect from within the nation of Israel – like these Jesus-followers – needed to be extinguished.

Paul was very much into being RIGHT, being BETTER; until God showed him how wrong he was. How he was, in fact, no better than any of these other people groups. How he was, in reality, no better than the lowest, despised, apostate sinner.

After having his eyes opened by the Savior-Messiah, Jesus, Paul wrote this devastating passage in the New Testament book of Romans:

“Now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:21-24)

There could hardly be a more radical declaration in all of religious history than this one.

  1. God is giving a righteousness (a right standing before Him, with all guilt removed) to people totally apart from their performance of any law.
  2. This gift is received by faith only – not by any obedience, any conformity, any external religious acts. We can’t earn a drop of righteousness before God.
  3. This righteousness is equally given to any and all persons equally (there is no distinction) – not matter if they are Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Asians, Africans, men, women, old, young, priests, prostitutes, actors, IRS employees, Republicans, Democrats, cultural Christians, murderers, Cowboy fans…even Canadians. God’s favored people are no longer a physical nation with a physical descendancy from Abraham. God’s people are simply any and all who believe. Everywhere. In any circumstance.
  4. This leveling gospel of the gift of righteousness is true because all people are equally sinful (all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God). No matter how good or how bad you think you’ve been, the testimony of God is that we are all impure – from the most outwardly religious, to the most aggressive atheist, to the most devoted mother, to the most indifferent pseudo-christian. From Billy Graham to Christopher Hitchens – and every single person in between, from every tribe and tongue and nation and creed – we all have the same affliction: a rebellious, unbelieving, and impure heart.


You and I, whomever you are, and whatever you’ve done or not done – we are on the same level. We have the same need – being made right with God because of sin. And God has provided the one Savior who has made the gift of righteousness available to all who believe – Jesus Christ.

Next time you or I are tempted to feel superior to anyone on this planet, it is only because of the delusion of sin, whispering in our ear that somehow we have attained a righteousness of our own. Trust me – you got nothing. Neither do I.

An imparted righteousness that comes from God Himself makes us all level, where we belong. In need of a Savior.



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Being Double-Minded in America

(I don’t even know why I bother writing. This article by Rick Segal is far more eloqent – and more hopeful – on similar themes…)

Why do so many of us have very conflicted reactions to social and political developments in our country? The turmoil we’ve been through as a nation over the past few weeks (racist shooting; flags; Supreme Court rulings) has brought it all to the surface in a new way for me.

You see, I am one person; but, like every one of us, I view life, and live it out, through two lenses. One the one hand, _____________. On the other, ___________________.

>> I have a personal worldview, and those beliefs lead me to think and speak and act one way.

>> I am a citizen of the United States, and that reality also shapes my feelings and actions into certain (other) directions.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m out walking my dog and you come up from behind and stab me – you stinking coward, you. Couldn’t even face me. I hope Mystic rips into your leg. Anyway, as a person, I may have a reaction of anger, perhaps to the point of desiring vengeance. I (and my rather imposing sons) may want to pound you into oblivion.

To spice things up, let’s also say you’re a Mexican, and I’m Donald Trump, so I now have some personal bigotry to throw into the mix as well…

Hopefully, I get some sense talked into me, and, eventually, I am even brought to the point of extending forgiveness.

All of those feelings and reactions go on at the personal level. What I am NOT allowed to do, however, is mix the personal with that which is at the societal level. That is, as a citizen of Franklin, TN, USA, I have to embrace the rule of law and let societal justice take its course with you, even if I still want to rip your head off – or choose to forgive you. As an individual, I may wish you well; but as a citizen, I may feel the tug of a certain double-mindedness about also wanting justice done.

And it doesn’t matter how you or I feel about racial heritage. I can’t enlist any sense of bigotry into the application of law. That is all out of my hands, and must be handled impartially by the government.

Do you see the two layers here? They produce different responses.

The teachings of Jesus inform me what to do on a personal level. But they aren’t to be applied one-for-one to our citizen/state relationships. <—(look, if you get nothing else out of this too-long essay, get this point. So much ill-informed Bible-verse-abuse happens by people trying to take the Bible’s principles addressed to individuals and the church, and applying it to the state. Judge not? Love your neighbor? Forgive? -these are not addressed to the state, but to the people of God).

That’s why I often find myself with layered reactions…because my response to things on a personal level may be quite different from my response as a citizen of this country. Hence, I think and speak with two voices at times.

Let’s take, as an example, the ongoing movement toward obliterating moral (and societal) categories of gender and sexual expression.

As a Christian individual, dealing with individuals who may not share my beliefs, it is my role (before God) to love all of my neighbors. That means I am to treat members of the LGBT community with kindness, respect, and open-heartedness; affirming not only our shared human fallenness, but also our shared human dignity. I may not wish to participate in, or affirm, specific beliefs and practices that I believe are contrary to the will of God (as is my right and duty); but that does not give me license to hate others whose sin happens to be of a different shade than mine. Jesus is our personal example – He welcomed fallen sinners of every stripe.

My Facebook stream was lit up last week with rainbow-colored avatars. I have many friends and colleagues who have a worldview different from mine. That’s not an accident – it’s a choice. I choose, as an individual, to build relationships with a myriad of people of many different backgrounds.

Also, I am not to try to impose my beliefs upon other individuals through coercion. Dialogue and persuasion, yes – that is the essence of freedom of speech and religion in a civil society. Coercion, no. I can vote my values (including moral perspectives), just as every other individual citizen can and will, but I cannot impose religious practices on others – just as I don’t want others to impose on my religious beliefs and practices.

Because, you know…..America.

And, the larger Christian community (the church worldwide, and individual churches everywhere), is to have a similar posture. We are to love our neighbors and welcome them to Christ, who cleanses each member of His community. We speak what we believe God has spoken, without fear – but it is not our job, as a church, to impose a theocracy onto our community through government coercion. The church may speak to, but it may not govern, society. This is not the place for Sharia law.

May I put it more bluntly? A church-controlled government would be anti-American. Why do you think our founders fled to this land?

HOWEVER…I am not only an individual with a personal worldview, I’m also a citizen of a nation founded on freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and here is where a “double-mindedness” comes in for many of our fellow Americans.

There are individuals who have a different take on gender and sexuality (the roots of this movement, from a societal perspective, reach firmly back into the cultural revolution that took place in the 1960’s). Cultural mores are shifting. Some would say this is progress, others would say exactly the opposite. We can agree to disagree.

But when a 2-3% minority can, fueled by the megaphones of the media and education complex, and backed by courts who have abandoned the Rule of Law in favor of Fiat by Opinion, impose its will on an entire nation – well, that’s a threat. Not merely a threat to individuals (though it is), and churches (though it is), but it’s a threat to our freedom, our heritage, as a nation.

This ruling – mark my words – will lead to suppression of free speech and free exercise of religion. To everyone’s loss. The mask of “equality” will soon drop off, and the aggressive marginalization of those who believe in objective truth and morality will accelerate. Don’t even try to argue with me. Just watch.

So – I can speak kindly with my neighbor, but does that mean I must feel kindly about an agenda that I believe, as a citizen of a free country, is unhealthy and destructive? Am I guilty of “hate” for having a conscience and a less-popular worldview?

Freedom does not mean eliminating opposition with court-issued clubs. We call that tyranny. Thousands bled and died for our freedoms. And when their blood flowed on the battlefield, it wasn’t so that bakers would be forced to compromise their sincerely-held convictions, then be penalized and silenced by a court order.

I resist imposed immorality and gag orders as a United States citizen, just as I (or an atheist) would resist a theocracy. I can love individual people and communities who are different from me, without embracing culture-cleansing agendas.

Many moderate people of a liberal persuasion actually understand the looming issue of religious suppression just now breaking on our shores. They may prefer live-and-let-live – but unfortunately, the tyrannical agenda is always driven by those on the extreme. Just ask the Muslim world.

Today’s minority can be tomorrow’s majority, and vice-versa. Yesterday’s oppressed can be today’s oppressors. Demeaning and dehumanizing other citizens by broad-brushing them (as individuals or groups) with labels like “bigot” or “hater” is nothing other than xenophobia dressed up in a new shade of hypocrisy. Have we really made progress, when an active suppression of those who believe differently from the new “in” group – nowadays, an imposition of secular values and practices, imposed by court strictures – is de rigeur in our society?

The seeds of moral relativism planted in the ’60’s have come to full flower. We are moving, progressively (pun intended), into the anarchy that leads inevitably to tyranny.

As an individual, and as a citizen, I get to love my neighbors AND speak my mind, even when there is more than one layer to these things. What you see above is civil discourse based on sincerely-held convictions. If you think it’s hate speech, then you, my friend, are part of the problem.

You may want to check your tyranny at the door.

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Equality is Rooted in Eternity

We’ve been surrounded all week by talk about equality. The hateful shooting in a Charleston S.C. church has brought to the surface the enduring existence of racist thinking in the minds of some; though it has also brought to the fore the remarkable response of forgiveness from many of the families impacted.

This was a hate event that turned into a grace event.

In light of that, what does the Christian gospel have to say about race relations?

Actually, a lot – but I want to focus on one foundational passage that should forever settle in our minds how we think about others that are “different” from us (as individuals or groups):

…in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)

May I give a little bit of context for this remarkable, we’re-all-on-the-same-level passage?

The Christian message came into a time and place where the Israelites – the physical descendants of Abraham – were “the chosen race.” This was nothing inherent – they did not possess superior humanity – but it was strictly through the election of God.

God was “with” Israel – and everyone else was an outsider. Gentiles were dogs. Samaritans (half-breed Jews) were despised. The sense of superiority was both tribal and religious.

That was the reality; and throughout human history, from the ancient past to the current day, you’ll never find a time when people of varying tribes, races, cultures, and belief systems did not look down upon, make war with, and subjugate others. Tribal strife in the Middle East is nothing new. Slavery, ethnic cleansing, oppression – where and when have these ugly practices NOT occurred??

We are a fallen HUMAN race; prideful superiority is woven into the fabric of our corrupted hearts. Not a single reader of this post is free from it – nor is the writer.

But into this mess came the radical message of the gospel of Christ.

All humanity had already been levelled under the dominion of sin. But the divine announcement of the Christian faith was that ANY and ALL could have equal standing with God based strictly on believing in the emancipation proclamation of Jesus as Savior. Jews and Gentiles; slaves and free; men and women; all races, backgrounds, cultures, standings in life, genders; even all stained with every variety of moral shortcoming and rebellion – ALL are welcome to turn from sin and come to Jesus, and be granted the status of spiritual offspring of Abraham. Chosen ones. Equally fallen, equally forgiven, equally adopted – equal in status before God and one another.

The body of Christ is one, composed of many. Different, yes. United in a common humanity and salvation? YES.

From the richest to the poorest, all robed in one righteousness, one faith, one hope. Jesus Himself. We retain our racial and cultural and other differences, of course; but all pride in such distinctions is obliterated.

This is why racism is so wrong; and this is how it is overcome. Apart from the gospel, racism is a fact of life. In Christ, racism must bow to a salvation that levels every human being before an infinite and wise God. You have to drop your superiority when you humble yourself before the living God.

Love wins, in other words.

And the amazing-grace response of the people of Charleston demonstrates that fact. Forgiveness, in the face of such hurtful hatred? It is the grace of God at work – so eloquently described by President Obama in that city’s memorial service this week.

Grace is what will overcome racism. Equality is not derived from something so flimsy as legislation, though laws can help usher in more equal practice. True equality is not acheived through the pile-on pronouncements of social media mobs. No – equality is ultimately a God-thing. Even the Declaration of Independence explicity declares that fact:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

Equality is rooted in eternity. When we personally know God’s embrace of our unworthy souls, we will fully grasp that we are all equal; and then, in humility and gratitude, we will embrace one another.

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What is God’s disposition RIGHT NOW, to you who are reading this, whether you are a Christian or not?

Oddly enough, we can find the answer by looking back 2,000 years or so ago.

Welcome! welcome

I confess that it is taking me many years to get this through my thick skull.

Like Adam and Eve, my sense of uncleanness and distance from God make me want to go hide in the bushes.

A messed-up man like me, welcome in God’s presence?

Yes. When Christ died on the cross, a mighty symbol was demonstrated to the world, in the tearing apart of the veil in Jerusalem’s temple.

As Charles Spurgeon writes in his classic Morning and Evening (April 19):

When Jesus died, the sacrifices were all finished, because all fulfilled in him…the atoning blood which was once every year sprinkled within the veil, was now offered once for all by the great High Priest, and therefore the place of the symbolical rite was broken up. No blood of bullocks or of lambs is needed now, for Jesus has entered within the veil with his own blood. Hence access to God is now permitted, and is the privilege of every believer in Christ Jesus.

Access to God is now wide open. Any may come, at any time, as they are, resting solely on the sacrificial Lamb who removed every barrier of uncleanness and hostility and distance.

Even MY innumerable sins don’t disqualify me. An ocean of love is sufficient to bathe in.

We can run and try to hide, because our darkened hearts believe that God’s heart is darkened as well. But it is not. Otherwise He would not have come to seek and save those who are lost.

Even the most defiled prodigal sons and daughters are welcomed home. With open hands and an open heart.

Image credit: aopsan via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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I have to confess that, by nature, I am more of a transactional than touchy-feely-relational guy.

Not uncommon for those of my gender (for a good laugh, see this video, which “nails” it ;>)

What I often find, however, is that I end up with a transactional view of God. The gospel can become a series of transactions.

Repent and believe, and you will be saved (transaction).

Become a believer and you’ll get a ticket to heaven (transaction).

Pray and God will answer (transaction).

Now, in fact, the Bible is full of these statements, but we’re not meant to view God and ourselves as some kind business entities. God isn’t merely doing things, offering things, and telling us to do things. He is not a dispensing machine.

We’re in a very personal relationship with Him. He shares life and light and renewal with us, and all of that is wrapped up in Jesus Himself. We are wrapped up in Jesus Himself.

He has condescended, and continues to condescend every day, to enter our world. To dwell in our hearts.

The great “transaction” of the gospel is that we exchange all of our filthy sins, our accumulated guilt, our powerless works, for….a Savior. Not just for salvation. We turn from self to Jesus Himself.

God hasn’t just saved us. He has Jesus’d us. He daily Jesuses us. If we are His son or daughter, He is Jesusing us right now.

We don’t need mere transactions, even from an all-powerful and benevolent God. All manmade religion is formed of the fabric of transactions. Christianity is Jesus as noun, Jesus as verb, Jesus as all – above all, and in all.

O Lord – Jesus me today.

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I’ve been spending time in recent mornings poring over the apostle Paul’s remarkable letter to the Galatians – specifically, meditating on the theme of sonship.

The thread of the idea of sonship runs throughout the New Testament – maybe it’s not one of the most prominent themes by volume of word usage, but I can’t help concluding that it is, in fact, a dominant theme of the entire gospel.

Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came to redeem and re-create fallen people, and make them God’s sons (and daughters).

So why has this amazing truth been so hard for me to digest over the years? I mean, really digest on the level of emotions. Having and enjoying a conscious relationship of sonship with my God.

Why would I hold back from a loving Father? What’s with the nagging, overarching feelings of dread and doubt that have seemed to swirl in my heart despite such clear teaching? If I’m a beloved son, why don’t I feel like a beloved son?

I see others who so easily take in these bright beams of gospel light and rest, at peace, knowing that God’s smile is not faded, fickle, or dependent on today’s state of mind. I always been jealous of such brothers and sisters.

After all, are my children any less my children, any less loved, on any given day? Is not our father-son relationship something of enduring permanence, simply because…it just is?

The fact is, I think we all tend to worship a God partially carved in our own image, and much of the Christian life is spent unlearning this idolotry, and replacing these defective God-pictures in our hearts with truth. Some think God is unrelentingly harsh and live in cringing fear. Some feel that He is so full of gushy-love that holiness is way at the back of the bus. Maybe our internal “wiring” and past experiences have much more to do with our view of God than the Bible does.

I’m a systems-thinker. I am compelled to figure out how things proceed from one thing to another, how things fit together – I ask questions and poke and prod and try to understand inter-relationships. Undoubtedly, this is why I gravitated, early on in my Christian experience, to theological studies. Figuring out God’s truth, His plan, His…(here’s where the trouble begins)…system.

God and truth as system.

Systems have outlines and connections and flow charts. Systems have right and wrong. Systems don’t have…heart. Systems don’t have children. Systems don’t dive into the messiness of live and embrace returning prodigals.

No wonder it’s been taking me so long to absorb sonship. I’ve preached sermons on it. I’ve known the theology of it. I “get” how sonship fits into the redemptive purpose (system).

But what I really need is to learn to be a son.

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Jesus = All

(a meditation on the book of Colossians, chapter 1:15-20)

As we noted in the prior 2 verses, the salvation promised in the Christian gospel involves being transferred into a new kingdom – we are delivered out of the dominion of darkness, and brought into the grace-filled realm of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

But is this Jesus really such a big deal? Aren’t there lots of prophets and religious leaders trotting out various schemes of religious “salvation”? Why Jesus and not, say, Mohammed? Or Buddha? Or my own efforts? Or why bother with any of this business – can’t I just go my own way and ignore Jesus and this Christian message entirely?

In fact, you can close the door of your mind and soul to Jesus Christ, and many have; but before you do, let’s take a look at some of the startling descriptions of Jesus made here by the apostle. Because clearly, He is not displayed as just another mere mortal. Low thoughts of Jesus certainly don’t find their genesis in the Scriptures.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. 19 For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.

Now these are some way-out-there claims. In fact, if you take every supreme ruler, every conquering king, every president or potentate or pope or CEO or any other earthly wielder-of-authority, roll them all up and stack them against THIS description, they are as mere ants in comparison.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God. In His unfolding plan to reveal Himself, God did not settle for mere words, or displays of power. He came, incarnate in the form of man, to show forth His glory – and love. Do you want to know God? Get to know Jesus.

Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. There are deep theological mysteries here, but think of Him this way – all creation came into being through Him; and all will be summed up in Him. Jesus, the image of God, is Creator and King. All things, seen and unseen; all subordinate rulers; EVERYthing derives from Him.

Jesus is the all-powerful sustainer of the universe. There is not a thing in existence (including you and me) at any moment which is not under His rule and control. All things hold together, not by impersonal forces, but by the hand of the living God. From thousands of years past, to endless eternity future, nothing has had or will have its ongoing existence apart from Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the head of His church. Jesus rules over every inch of His creation, true; but there is a special rule that He exercises over His chosen people on earth. He has joined Himself to those who call upon Him in faith; His church is His body, and He is the resurrected forerunner of His people, who will also be raised in Him to newness of life. In all things, Jesus has gone first, and occupies first place, for His spiritual family.

Jesus is the fulness of God. All of the riches of God’s divine, immortal, and immeasureable bounty are shared by His Son. Jesus was never about being a mere spark of the divine. He is the divine.

Jesus is the God-creation reconciler. Somehow, the gap of sin that created a huge gulf between God (perfectly holy) and man (defiled and fallen) had to be bridged. In the curious and wondrous genius of God, it was through the once-for-all sacrifice of His Son on a cross. The curse on the creation will be removed; those fallen in their father Adam who call upon the second Adam, Christ Himself; we will be renewed, forgiven, and glorified. All of heaven and earth will be reconciled and restored.

We who are Christians are never to have low thoughts of Jesus – as if he were some slightly elevated man-angel, barely able to hold his own against the forces of evil, and regularly thwarted by creatures who don’t acknowledge his rule. Re-read the passage above and look at the repeated use of the word, “all.” We worship the One who has created all, is above all, rules all, knows all, and will bring all into subjection to Himself. Away with wimpy thoughts of Jesus! We ought never to slink about in fear when such a King lives among us and in us.

— Prior posts in this series —

Colossians 1:1-2: Why Listen to this Paul Character?

Colossians 1:3-8: A Harvest of Gospel Fruit

Colossians 1:9-12: Praying for Progress

Colossians 1:13-14: The Great Transfer

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