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Broken, blind, defiled, and in denial.

These are the labels we wear outside of Christ. And, as long as we remain in denial, we vehemently deny it. Doesn’t change a thing.

We’re broken. Blind. Defiled. And trying to cover it all up with denial-fig-leaves.

Until God puts a spiritual mirror in front of us and gives us a glimpse of reality. Yes, God makes us miserable – or, to put a finer point on it, God exposes our awful misery while shaking us out of our senselessness.

Ironically, it is the recognition of our hopeless moral sickness that leads us to the Savior.

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I love Southern magnolias.

I was first introduced to these magnificent trees with their large, waxy leaves way back when I first went to college at Vanderbilt (in Nashville, TN). But since I was on campus only from Sept-May each year, I missed the best part – until I spent my first summer in Nashville after graduation.

The gorgeous, fragrant white flowers that bloom in the late spring.

I can’t begin to describe the scent of these things – it is so sweet and powerful that you must experience it to believe it. And, happily, our current home here in Franklin, TN has a lovely magnolia in the front yard, which we’re enjoying immensely right now.

The thing about white magnolia flowers, though – they don’t last long. They burst into glory and then fade off in a matter of a few days.

Magnolia

From bud to flower to gone in the blink of an eye.

Our life spans seem long by comparison, but in the light of eternity, they’re really not – we’re here today, gone tomorrow. I just received an e-mail yesterday about another high school classmate who has passed away. Wasn’t it just yesterday that a bunch of fresh-faced kids from Berlin (CT) High School were graduating, ready to tackle the world? Wasn’t it just a few moments ago that we were setting up the dunking booth at the Berlin Fair to raise a little money? Now we’re talking about medical procedures and grandchildren and retirement.

Our parents are leaving the scene (or have already left) and we‘re the generation between now and no more. How did that happen?!?

Reading in recent days in the New Testament book of 1 Peter has reminded me afresh of how brief our mortal lives are – yet, there is something far more enduring that is our true hope.

You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” (1 Peter 1:23-25)

When we see the fleeting blooms of spring, and the green-today-brown-tomorrow life cycle of grass, we are meant to realistically consider how temporary we truly are. Youth becomes old age at a bewildering pace. However…

There is permanence. It is not found in ourselves; but instead, in the immortal and unchanging God who created us and all things. Not only does the verse above reference the enduring and abiding and imperishable Word of God, but earlier verses in the chapter describe an eternal life that is anything but fleeting:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)

An unfading inheritance that is kept – guarded – given – by the power of the eternal and unchanging God. Born once according to the flesh, we only have decay and death awaiting us. But born a second time, through faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ, we look forward to immortality. “Salvation” is not just some emotional experience on earth. It is deliverance from sin and death, and a (guaranteed) never-ending life in the presence of an ever-living Savior.

I will still always love the scent of magnolias, as fleeting as the enjoyment will be. But it makes no sense to put all my hope into this fading world. I will wither; but, through the grace and power of the gospel, I will be eternally renewed. I will die; yet I will live – because Jesus died and rose in my place, and shares His eternal life with me and with all who call upon Him.

That’s the promise of an unfailing God.

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The essence of the Christian faith can be found in this amazing sentence:

“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14)

Genuine Christianity includes belief in Christ, joined to a personal and ongoing experience of Christ’s deliverance of us. It’s not an abstract set of dogmas. It’s an unfolding story of escape.

Escape Gospel

I wrote about the in whom we have aspect in this prior post. But let’s back up and look at what this passage tells us about rescue.

1. First of all, note that deliverance/rescue/salvation is not a mere bullet point in a list of orthodox dogmas. “We believe in a; and in b; and in c; oh, and by the way, we believe in rescue; and in this; and that; and the other…” While the Christian faith, like any and every other belief system and worldview (including atheism), includes a series of beliefs, the biblical gospel involves far more that a mental framework. It is founded on an individual and corporate experience of escape – a rescuing from moral and spiritual darkness – performed by the hand of God Himself through Jesus Christ. This is an audacious claim. We don’t adhere to dead truths from a mythical God; we believe in a living and active God who does miracles in people. Darkness-defeating deliverances. Today.

2. Also, the Scripture is very plain about the reality of darkness. It is moral. It is spiritual. It is universal. And it is powerful – such that every single human being is in its grip, and we cannot escape without rescue from a much more powerful God of light and love. The first step in God’s rescuing work is making us realize how hopelessly we are enchained in darkness. We’re not good. We’re not neutral. We’re not filled with enlightened intelligence. And, enslaved in our chains of moral folly, we cannot free ourselves. The gospel is for the hopeless leper; to the self-sufficient soul still in the grip of darkness, it simply sounds like foolishness.

3. We’re not independent operators, as much as we’d like to imagine ourselves to be. We belong to a kingdom, and this is a binary (zero or one) reality. The kingdom of darkness. The kingdom of Jesus. No middle ground, no other choices. Until and unless we are delivered by Jesus, we remain enslaved in darkness. This, by the way, is why people so violently oppose the gospel. It undercuts our arrogance and imagined self-determination right to the taproot. The gospel is astonishingly inclusive – any and all are welcome – but also terrifyingly exclusive. One way to God. Only Jesus can deliver the darkness-shrouded soul. We need a specific cure, not a random medicine chest, for our deadly disease.

4. In the midst of all these hard and uncomfortable truths, love is the answer. Not some wispy ’60’s view of hippie mush-love, but the all-powerful love of the Father for His Son, and His love for us expressed through His Son’s sacrifice for sins. We need redemption and forgiveness first and foremost; and that is exactly what God extends to those in darkness. Cleansing where once was only impurity. Restoration where there was hostility. Healing in the midst of brokenness. Sight where once spiritual blindness ruled. Love is not smooth words afraid to offend. Love breaks chains and makes rescues.

5. The conclusion we draw from this – and it is reinforced over and over throughout the Scriptures – is that mere human moral effort is inadequate. Just adopting orthodox beliefs is insufficient. Taking on Jesus’ name with the lips while retaining a heart in love with the practice of sin is a lie. Real, living Christianity is seen where thankful, delivered, spiritually-awakened people worship the God who loves them, and love other imperfect people within the body of Christ and outside of it.

Do you want to witness the reality of God’s work on earth? Don’t crave signs and wonders in the sky. Look for the people of the great escape. That is the hand of God – and He invites you to come to Him for deliverance. Weak, wounded, broken, scarred, blind, enslaved, addicted, impure, dying – Jesus, the great physician, calls the sick to Himself for healing.

 

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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?

Trapped.

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

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The New Dividing Line

When it comes to religion, we all have a compulsion to draw lines: Who’s in? Who’s out?

Who are God’s chosen people?

(Assumed) membership in the club of the divinely favored has divided us through the ages. Patting ourselves on the back for being in the club – wearing a diviner label, as it were – brings out the ugliest in human pride.

Jesus totally ruins that self-congratulatory party. He’s so disruptive that way…

In Matthew 8:1-13, Jesus does marvelous works of healing grace for members of two very disfavored groups: a leper, and a Gentile. In the Jewish economy, the pure, the chosen, the favored ones, were the physical descendants of Abraham. The unclean (like lepers and foreign races) were excluded from nearness to God.

Except they weren’t, once the new age of promiscuous grace dawned on the world. Have you ever put together the ideas of “God” and “promiscuous”? It’s a startling and wonderful thought. Someone who is promiscuous shares his or her favors around freely. Grace is like that. Dwelling inside the walls of a special club isn’t.

For a time, the Jewish nation was commanded to be separate from the world, and elaborate rules were put in place (by God Himself) to teach the human race about holiness, impurity, and sacrificial cleansing.

“Be separate,” said the Lord. And there were very good reasons to stay at arm’s-length from the pagan practices of the surrounding nations. There was much wickedness out there. There still is.

But the point is often lost – there is just as much wickedness in here. In my heart and yours. No matter what club we grew up in, or joined.

Then came the gospel of grace. And the new dividing line was humble, needy faith coming to a willing, forgiving, all-powerful Savior. The dividing line is not bloodlines. Not geography. Not diviner labels. Heart-devotion.

The children of Abraham were not merely to be his physical descendants. They would be all those with the faith of Abraham – even the unclean, the foreign, the defective, the broken, the polluted, the guilty – any and all who come to Jesus with their spiritual leprosy AND faith were now welcome into the very presence of God.

Tasting His goodness, and loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, has always been the main point – even from the earliest days of the Jewish nation.

The dividing line is now a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of gracious pardon humbly received, not bloodlines inherited or doctrinal systems embraced.

Our dividing lines can allow us a sense of superiority, while at the same time keeping us from a genuine relationship with God (and other people). If your distinguishing mark is, “I’m a good (Baptist/Jew/Muslim/Catholic/Buddhist/Pagan),” then you may, in fact, be hiding from God behind your barrier of external righteousness.

Your diviner label, which you think makes you better, is nothing more than (as the Scripture so bluntly puts it) “filthy rags.”

Jesus reserved His harshest words for those who hid behind their bloodlines, their external works of righteousness, their religious posture. But He welcomed sinners who believed in Him.

Here is what godliness looks like: “(the) leper came to Him and bowed down before Him, and said, ‘Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.’ Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing, be cleansed.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” (Matthew 8:2-3)

There is still a dividing line between the holy and the unclean, the righteous and the wicked, the people of God and the people who love the world. But you won’t find that line in religious club membership with the right name and list of qualifications.

Spiritual lepers who have been humbled, cleansed, and who love their Savior are the people of God. And they come in all shapes and sizes and genders and races and backgrounds. They’re not better than anyone else – in fact, their track record is often far worse. Which led them to grace instead of preening self-righteousness.

They’re only “in” because God showed them how “out” they were – and welcomed them home to Himself.

As He is perfectly ready to do with you and me. When we are ready to admit that our club uniform is, in fact, filthy rags (not holy vestments); and that, as hopeless spiritual lepers, we need a healing Savior.

“Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

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