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Monday, June 10, 2013

Gospel of Grace

I wonder … does a person need the Bible?
            It’s sort of odd that a Christian pastor of all people would ask that.  We tend to tell people to read the Bible.  We never question if it is needed.  Now the question hangs in the air.
            I recall someone I met over a dozen year ago.  She was enraptured with her new found Christianity, but thoroughly did not understand.  She received Jesus and I baptized her and then did not see her for a long time.  She apparently did not need church.  When she finally did come back, she said, with much excitement that she assumed I would share, that she put her Bible under her pillow and slept on it every night. 
            She was developmentally delayed but I have known many Christians who treat their Bible exactly the same way.  They would not admit it the way she did, but they carry the Bible like some kind of talisman but never actually open and read.  When used in this way, especially like the simple young woman who lay her head on it, the only thing the Bible gives is neck pain.
            But what if we do read it?  A lot of people here do Bible study fellowship; or read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year-programs.  Our small groups get into the word.  I urge Bible reading all the time in sermons and newsletter articles and Facebook messages and tweets.  If we are group of readers, well, so what?  What does it do?
            Do we need the Bible?  No.  There is something we need for salvation, but it is not the Bible.
            Allow me to quickly back up and say that my statement we don’t need the Bible lies in a specific conversation about what puts a human in relationship with God.  The Bible is not a qualifier.  It is not needed in the way a passport is needed to get into another country.  It is not needed in the way a heart is needed for the body to function.  If your heart breaks down, you need a transplant.  If you lose your Bible, you can still be a Christian.
            The Bible is needed to know about God.  The Bible is necessary if we want to live in the story of our faith.  Just as the Holy Spirit breathed into the writers whose works became scripture, I think the Holy Spirit breathes into us when we read.  By the Holy Spirit our reading of scripture becomes a time of God speaking to us.  In 1000 ways, we do need it.  But in terms of marking one saved, we do not need the Bible. 
            We don’t need the church community either.  Keith Green, a popular Christian singer in the early 1980’s said “Going to church makes you a Christian like going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.”  We don’t need the church per se in order to be saved.
            Just as I briefly hit the breaks to reassert how necessary the Bible, I do the same with the Christian family.  The church does not save anyone.  Jesus is the savior.  But I don’t see how someone can live as a saved person apart from Christian community.  In 1000 ways, we most definitely need Christian community, the church.  But in terms of being made right with God, the church does not accomplish that. 
            I begin with notions not normally spoken in worship – we don’t need the Bible or the church – because there is an issue of authority and the issue of the pure Gospel that marks the way the Christian faith can sometimes be misconstrued.  Distorted versions of what it means to be a Christ-follower and to be the church of Jesus Christ are rampant today and wrong ideas have confused believers all the way back to the first century.
            Christianity was born out of Judaism.  Jesus, God in the flesh, was a human being and a Jewish human being.  He was a circumcised, Torah-observant Jew as were all his original followers.  After he rose from death and ascended to the right hand of Father God, his followers were left to spread his gospel of salvation.  They were not left without help.  The Holy Spirit came and empowered people.  The Holy Spirit did not make the first Christians flawless.
            They were the most religious of people and their frame of reference was Judaism.  Jesus did not say, “Here ends Judaism; now begins Christianity.”  Jesus did not cancel, annul, discard, or reduce Judaism.  He fulfilled Judaism. 
            Every element of ancient Israel was meant to point the world to God.  The land was the land of God’s people.  The city, Jerusalem, was the city of God.  The temple was where God was found and worshipped.  Circumcision, Torah, festivals, and Sabbath-keeping; it all marked Israel as God’s people.  But it did more than that.  All these distinctions and practices pointed to God.
            Do we need the Bible to be saved?  Do we need the church to be counted ‘with God?’
            Did Israel need the Torah, which by the way is the text of the first five books of the Old Testament?  Oh yes, Torah was needed.  Did Israel need to be Israel, chosen?  Yes.  What changed?
            God came.  We don’t need something pointing to God if God is standing right there.  In Galatia, the first century Christian Paul could see that with Jesus having come, the distinctions of Torah, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping had been achieved and were no longer important.  Furthermore, if a worshiping community insisted on remaining in Torah and requiring circumcision for membership, then that group was actually failing to receive what was essential – grace. 
            Thus it was not a simple matter of missing the finer points from Jesus’ teaching.  To require circumcision and to require Torah-observance of all who would be Christians was to stare at the signs instead worshiping the God the signs revealed.  Be sure and understand, the rivals Paul is worried about in the letter he writes to the Galatian churches view themselves as Christ followers.  In fact it may very well be that these teaching another Gospel, as Paul calls it in verse 6, have come from James, the half-brother of Jesus and author of the New Testament epistle James.  Whether James himself made the errors Paul is fighting here or emissaries from him took his teaching too far we cannot say.  But Paul is deadly serious.  He’s afraid if the Galatian church gets away from the graced received from God and move toward a religion marked by practice instead of relationship, then they will be lost.
            And we will too if we think reading the Bible enough and attending church enough will earn us Heaven points.  This may seem ridiculously obvious, but God does not need me to read the New Testament.  God knows what it says.  God will not be impressed if I am at church or church activities 100 hours a week. 
            The teachers who came to the Galatian churches after Paul accused him of deserting the word of God and lacking credentials.  His response?  “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (v.14).  Paul’s letters were filled with allusions to the Old Testament.  If we want to understand Paul, we need to read Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Isaiah.  And it wouldn’t hurt to be pretty familiar with Exodus and Jeremiah either.  Paul knew the scripture and he wouldn’t tolerate it if he was accused of lacking that foundational knowledge.
            Neither would he accept that scripture knowledge and scripture application were essentials to be saved.  The word is absolute necessary to live as a saved person, but the Bible does not save.  The Torah does not save.  God does. 
            “I advanced in Judaism,” Paul said, “But when God … was pleased to reveal his Son to me so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being … but I went away to Arabia” (v.15, 16, 17).  Here, Paul flips the script.
            He claims his credentials as a zealous Jews, then tosses those credentials out.  He does the same thing in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 3).  Rather than stand on knowledge he gained through years of rigorous study, when it comes to helping people come to Jesus, Paul stands on just one thing – his relationship with God in Jesus Christ. 
            I need to reiterate that nothing of what I am saying is a suggestion that we read the Bible less or stop attending church.  What I am saying is those things should not be done out of duty.  We do not have a duty-bound faith, but a grace-response faith.  We read scripture to know more about the God who saves us.  We attend worship to exalt him and we participate in the life of the church to be in love-relationship with others who are saved by grace – our brothers and sisters.  Our study and participation are expressions of our gratitude to the Lord and our joy in Jesus is heightened in the Bible and in the church.  Or at least it should be. 
            Paul feared a loss of gospel and loss of faith as the young Christians were given conflicting teaching.  He insisted that to be the church of God, the people had to stand on the solid rock, Jesus, who was a gift of grace to them.  Any other means of being Christian was another gospel.  All other practices like worship and gathering and reading were good and right, but in their place.
            Refusing to boast of credentials, Paul stood on testimony.  As rendered in the Contemporary English Version, “My friends, I want you to know that no [human being] made up the message I preach.   My message came directly from Jesus Christ when he appeared to me” (v.11-12).
            Paul never insisted that the Galatians or any other group of Christians have the same experiences he had.  We cannot generate G0d-experiences.  They come from God and we cannot predict them or summon them.  We can say that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him, which is another way of saying whoever receives forgiveness from him as a gift of grace, will have eternal life (John 3:16 par.).
            How God appears to you or me will vary from you to me.  The nature of one’s relationship will change over the course of time because personal relationships are dynamic.  If we don’t understand Christianity as a personal relationship with God, we’ll never fully get Paul’s gospel.  We’ll never walk in the abundant life Jesus promised.  We won’t hear from God when God chooses to speak.
            Now if someone came this morning and said, “I want a personal experience of God, right here, right now,” I would respond, “OK.”  And we would ask God for that.  Whether God would give that I don’t know.  I believe though for all who sincerely repent and come in brokenness to receive grace from God, it will be given.  I think that is the heart of Paul’s words in Galatians 1.  He says a lot more than just that, but the core truth is we need God’s grace.  Paul had achieved all one could achieve.  The Jesus came and it all changed. 
            If Jesus has never come into your life, when he does, it will all change.  You might feel the dramatic change right in the moment.  Or, salvation could be a process that begins when you stop trying to “be good” and give up on trading in accrued Heaven points and instead try a different plan.  Instead accept that like everyone else, you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God but in His perfect love he holds out grace and forgiveness to you.  So, come and receive Jesus.  He is who we all need. 
            Everything good in life springs from Him.  Our church family becomes an expression of the Kingdom of God as we live in the grace we have received.  In repentance and by faith, come to Jesus.


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