Sunday, March 19, 2006

Grace - the Most Overused yet Abused Word in the Christian Dictionary?

Enter the word "Grace" into Google and it will discover around 289, 000, 000 sites for you. The first site is Channel 4's popular show, 'Will and Grace' closely followed around 9th in the list by John MacArthur's 'Grace to You' Ministries. Oh sure. Grace is a popular word. You can't move in Christian circles without bumping into it. "By His grace .. Grace church ... grace and peace to you ... may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God ... Grace Ministries" and so on and so on.

I have been reading Galatians with the help of Prof Gordon Fee and I've been amazed at how utterly angry Paul was with the legalists that he met. Paul really hated legalism! Small wonder that Terry Virgo can marvel in the lavish grace of God and say, "How powerful grace is that it can take an embittered legalist, a murderer and set him free to say, 'By the grace of God I am what I am!" (p91). Clearly it takes something as powerful as grace to deliver one from something as evil as legalism! So this morning on this glorious Sunday, I want to join Paul in a bit of hating legalism and enjoying grace.

1. Galatians is an EXPERIENTIAL not POSITIONAL book.

So says Fee. "Thus the argument is not basically along positional lines that one has right standing with God ("is justified") by faith alone, rather it is especially along experiential lines, that by faith one has received the Spirit and that the Spirit and Torah observance (= 'works of law') are absolutely incompatible" (GEP, p369). So in other words, Spirit = Freedom. Torah or Law = Slavery. Fee says again, "For Paul, the gift of the Spirit along with the death and resurrection of Christ meant the end of the time of Torah" (p369 - emphases mine).

For Paul then, Spirit-life is absolutely essential to Christian living, and I think Fee would not be mad at me for deriving that Spirit-life is just as essential for banishing legalism and enjoying and basking in the grace of God. Why else would Terry Virgo write, "Paul wants you to appreciate that not only Christ's great work of crushing condemnation through His Cross, but also His life-imparting power that comes to you by the indwelling Spirit who, by His power, fulfills in you what the outward law could not fufill" (GLL, p133 - emphases mine).

Surely therefore, those who call themselves charismatics should be especially in interested in this book! What a poor testimony to the power of the Spirit to meet a legalistic charismatic! Gordon Fee wrote that Paul's whole argument in Galatians, "runs aground if this appeal is not also to a reception of the Spirit that was dynamically experienced" (GEP, p383).

2. Grace is an ONGOING not AUTOMATIC experience.

Fee said, "For Paul all is not automatic. One must sow to the Spirit (6:8) and be led by the Spirit (5:18) ... thus the Spirit not only stands at the beginning of Christian existence, but is the key ingredient to Paul's understanding of the whole of that existence" (GEP, p370). I do appreciate that there is much talk abroad of unity around the gospel and therefore much talk indeed of the gospel. This is a good thing. We are indeed 'all one' in Christ. However my concern is that we do not get caught up in the latest fad and spend our time with Bunyan standing gazing at the wicket gate ... or the Cross. Or wherever.

Christian life doesn't know much of standing and "gazing" to me. Bunyan was so right to make it clear that we are on a journey and these truths must run with us. Therefore the dynamic of the Spirit to Paul, and to Fee is not just for the beginnings of Christian life. But for "the WHOLE" of that existance and our existance. Small wonder then that Gordon Fee calls "being filled with the Spirit" - the ULTIMATE imperative.

To quote Terry Virgo again, "Grace should never lead to passivity but to outrageous adventure, a lifestyle that baffles those who play safe. It threatens the status quo not only of tentative religion but also of cynical unbelief" (GLL, p185). Terry said earlier that grace sets us FREE from the fear of condemnation! Grace assures us that God has FULLY accepted us! But again unsurprisingly for Terry Virgo - he too sees our mobility as essential. "He calls you to go with good news for the nations".

3. Legalism therefore is a MALIGNANT CANCER not a BENIGN FAULT!

Terry Virgo said of the legalists in Philippi, "Paul's dismissive attitude is amazing, regarding them as he does as "dogs" and "evil workers" (Phil 3:2). Why else would Paul be so disturbed with the Galatians? He found something good to say about, even the Corinthians! Michael Eaton wrote, "Law produces a judgemental atmosphere. It tends to condemn you and you condemn everyone else. Law tends to produce a guilt-laden atmosphere. Paul has one word for all of this; DEATH! The law kills!". Terry Virgo said in a sermon, "Condemnation is a WORK OF DARKNESS! It doesn't work! It has no power to change!".

It is interesting that Paul has some very practical instruction for the Galatians near the end of the letter, that I am not now suprised is included. (Galatians 6:1-3). "Restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness". Fee wrote, "You should restore a fallen brother or sister remembering your own susceptibility to temptation". John Calvin is a little more forward about it.

"Ambition is a serious and alarming evil. But hardly less injury is frequently done by unseasonable and excessive severity which, under the plausible name of zeal, springs in many instances from pride and from dislike and contempt of the brethren. Most men seize on the faults of brethren as an occasion of insulting them, and using reproachful and cruel language. Were the pleasure they take in upbraiding equalled by their desire to produce amendment they would act in a different manner. We must not shrink from a testimony against sin, neither must we omit to mix oil with the vinegar" (Commentaries, p171).

Fee says again, "It is exactly our common vulnerability that causes people of the Spirit to restore the fallen rather than kick them while they are down, as many of us are so prone to do" (GEP, p462).

I wonder if any preacher would say about legalism, "Be ever killing it or it will be killing you" - just as John Owen said about sin. Because legalism IS sin. And it is all the more hateful to God because it is fuelled by pride. Or it is as a preacher I heard once said not so long ago, "The height of self-arrogance".

Conclusion: So what?

1. Fee said, "The coming of the Spirit was a dynamic, experienced reality ... For the ongoing life that Christ has afforded through His death and resurrection, the Spirit is the key to everything; conversion, ethics, community life, miracles, revelations, eschatology. Without the Spirit there simply is no genuinely Christian life" therefore our pursuit of Him and His indwelling and filling of us must be far far more than simply "acknowledging" His empowering work.

2. I think we must be very careful what names we adopt for ourselves. Terry Virgo once prayed at the Brighton Leaders Conference, "Let our doctrines adorn our name". Do we attach the word "Grace" to ourselves? Well then let us be extremely careful how we live. Because the world is watching - and doesn't particularly care initially about our name. They are watching our actions. It is incredible however how quickly they notice if a hint of legalism, or judgementalism appears among people who wear the name "Grace" as their banner.

I think there was more understanding among non-Christians for the shutting down of Stoneleigh Bible Week than there was among Christians! I told a number of my non-Christian friends about it when it happened and I was amazed by how many said, "Well - you call yourself 'New Frontiers' don't you?!".

3. Grace is an ongoing adventure but a daily quest. "Keep yourself in the love of God". I have come to realise that being as prone to this hated legalism as I am, I must avail myself of every means of grace that God has made possible! It's not enough to sing a beautiful "grace" chorus such as "The Grace of God upon my life" and then hope for the best! Terry Virgo said, "This liberty has not only to be celebrated but fought for, as the letter to the Galatians demonstrates" (GLL, p106).


thebluefish said...

Top stuff.
Virgo on grace and Honeysett on joy were the best books I read in 2005 for the reasons you're outlining.

You really have to read Honeysett:
Finding Joy

(obviously not "have to" in a legalistic sense! - but you'll love it)

Baxter's Boy said...

Thanks for reading and for the encouragement!! :) I was worried that I was coming across as too legalistic about ... not being legalistic. ;)

And thanks for the book tip - I haven't read Honeysett. But I'm up for getting ANYTHING on grace. Will buy asap!

Anonymous said...

This is a powerfully written and yet most needed piece of writing. The reader can tell that you have been profoundly wounded by legalism, you have been guilty of legalism, and are still prone to legalism - all like the apostle! And so the call to the power of grace ...

Yes indeed any "Grace" Ministry, church, person needs be very careful and constantly be examining themselves. For theirs is the greater judgement!?

I love and appreciate the careful blend of theology, not over-use of quotes but the ones you use have the true power of smooth stones that could have been selected by David to kill Goliath. Let us hope they bruise the right foreheads ...

On a slightly different note, I am confused at Gordon Fee's revealing of himself in the issue of the baptism of the Spirit. I understand he differs from most Pentecostals in (wrongly) identifying it as simultaneous with conversion/regeneration. Yet I note from your quote that he insists it must be a powerful dynamic experience thereby falling into the trap of logic that Dr Lloyd-Jones revealed in my hearing. He is therefore arguing that all must de facto have a dynamic powerful regeneration or they are not Christians.

And Dr Lloyd-Jones identified this as very cruel.

Interesting ....

Dr S A J Burgess

Anonymous said...

Why are you so angry?

Baxter's Boy said...

That's a valid question Anonymous. Why am I so angry?

Dr Sam Storms said:

"There are people, professing Christian people, who are determined to bring you under their religious thumb. They are bent on making you a slave of their conscience. They have built a tidy religious box, without biblical justification, and strive to stuff you inside and make you conform to its dimensions. They are legalists, and their tools are guilt, fear, intimidation, and self-righteousness. They proclaim God’s unconditional love for you, but insist on certain conditions before including you among the accepted, among the approved elite, among God’s favored few".

And then he said this:

"I suspect that some of you are either legalists or, more likely, the victims of legalism".

Well I've been both. I've been a legalist (and still am in some respects) but I've been a victim of legalism. And I am angry because legalism AFFECTS CHRISTIAN PEOPLE'S LIVES. Worst of all it seems to me, to hurl abuse in the face of what Christ did for us on the Cross - all the pain and agony He went through was for a reason. "It was for freedom that Christ has set us FREE!".

Legalism seeks to lock those freed ones up again. By imposing ultimatums. By saying "You must do this or else ...". By suggesting that our acceptance in the church depends on our practice - not our position.

And that's why I get mad.

Sam Storms asks this:

"When you are around other Christians, whether in church or a home group or just hanging out, do you feel free? Does your spirit feel relaxed or oppressed? Do you sense their acceptance or condemnation? Do you feel judged, inadequate, inferior, guilty, immature, all because of your perceived failure to conform to what someone else regards as “holy”?".

We've all heard of the Modesty Checklist haven't we. Well here's the Legalism Checklist.

Dr S J said...

Great great GREAT quotes from Storms. Could I suggest that maybe there is an element of the victim and the abuser in many of us Christians? There is a suggestion in psychology that one who has been abused is more likely to abuse themselves ... I wonder (and it is just a wonder) whether the same is true of legalists.

They have suffered under legalism and seen it at work, yet somehow manage when the time comes to abuse it themselves to other people's damage and detriment. This isn't an excuse. Pastors stand accused - they WILL face the judgement seat of Christ for abusing those entrusted to their care.

But a suggestion proposed for why maybe?

thebluefish said...

I think one of the challenges in pastoral work is that genuine concern to help people root out sin can sometimes be only a fine line away from percieved legalism.... the challenge seems to be to fight sin at the same pace that the Spirit is convicting us of it.... which takes much discernment.

The big thing seems to be having holiness taught by grace - as God says in Titus 2.

Anonymous said...

Has any one bothered to stop and ask the question...

If this blog author is so committed to "God's glorious church" (as he has mentioned many, many times in numerous posts) why wasn't he in God's glorious church this Sunday, but rather giving time to posting new material. Maybe it was a one-off, but we don't hear about your life joined together with and walked out alongside those whom make up a local expression of God's glorious church. There seems to be from my observation a staggering absence of any mention of how you are particpating in, benefitting from, enjoying and encountering God and fellowshipping and serving with his people regularly and consistently in the make-up of a local church. You also seem to live from conference to conference rather than throwing yorusefl itno a local church. It doesn't make any sense to me.

Are you practising what you preach? Or are you a lone maverick Christian? Or are you not particpating in church because you don't want to be legalistic about it?!?

Books and blogs and conferences can give us great understanding and provoke our thought and can occupy our time, but they cannot and should not - and it is dangerous to - allow them to replace our being part of a local body of believers.

I once heard it said, and i think it is very accurate, that we you can see what a person truly believes by what he does.

It strikes me that you could be one of heady words and weighty opinions -- but are these doctrines that you "profess" to love and hold to being outworked? Or are you simply hearing the word and deceiving yourself (James 1:19-25)?

It's very easy to shoot others down to justify our own positions, and make ourselves feel better about how we are living. IS this what you are doing? But putting it down to "anger" at some way you have been treated in the past?

jul said...

I hate legalism with a passion. I was born a legalist and still am fighting the fight of faith against it, in my own life and anywhere else I find it. One of the biggest problem with legalism is that it robs us of intimacy with God. Lets use the modesty example. Say I hear a great sermon on modesty, and begin to feel convicted by the Holy Spirit. This could lead to a wonderful encounter with God, where I learn by his own voice more of who he really is, and am therefore changed by entering into his presence. Instead, on the way out, I'm handed a peice of paper with a list of rules. The sermon has been digested for me already, and regurgitated for my immediate consumption. No need for the Holy Spirit, so I miss the blessing of experiencing him and growing closer to him. Instead of loving Christ more, I now pour my energy into following my new rules. I do well, I love myself more--I don't do well, I become bitter toward God. How is God glorified in this?
Legalism is rooted in pride and self-glorification. It can NEVER please God. That is always our big mistake, and shows how little we truly know God. Faith in him pleases him, not anything else. I hate legalism because it is pride and will put God at opposition against us. It makes us like Satan, enemies of God. May we never spend our lives whitewashing tombs- ours or anyone elses- but instead let's believe in the power of God to bring the dead back to life and dress them in the beautiful robes of the righteousness of Christ.

ollie said...

Erm ... to the Anonymous guy, have YOU stopped and noticed that this blog was written at ten to four in the afternoon??! Who do you know, who's at church at that time? So how do you know he wasn't at church?

You're a very angry person but it doesn't seem against legalism!

nwood said...

I love this post and the conversation that it has provoked. A shame about the angry little anonymous man of course. I wonder - has he stopped and asked the question, if he is so bothered by the lifestyle of Dan that he thinks he knows so much about - then why is he reading it? A poorly written comment that sounds just petulant ... and as Ollie said - angry for all the wrong reasons. And above all somewhat cowardly for remaining so safely anonymous.

I didn't want to get into that though. I think this has been largely very positive. I LOVE Jul's comment about legalism robbing us of intimacy with God! YES! It does! Because isn't it the case that legalism rules by fear? And shame? Things that, as Dan said so rightly, the Cross of Christ happened to abolish?

How cunning is our enemy to allow this sin, that indeed is fueled by pride and arrogance to spread like a malignant cancer throughout the church. Yes the GLORIOUS church of Jesus Christ!

Thanks for this and for the book plugs that have come. I am putting all my books on grace back to the top of my reading pile!

Living Life Now said...

My my Daniel, you have caused another stir !!

Your post though was very imformative, biblical and... Right on !!

What a pity an ranting little person had to put a downer on it with inane questions about your faith.
Anyone who truly knows you, knows exactly how dedicated to God's Glorious church you are.

michaela j said...

A great post and a very challenging discussion - thanks to almost everyone involved that made it a positive learning experience.

- I think Bluefish had a really valid point from his experience, about how hard it must be to get the balance right between striving for holiness and legalism itself.

- I love Jul's passion in hating legalism (just as I loved Dan's in the original post). We SHOULD hate it!

- Above all I think a commitment to grace is essential. My home church has made grace a key passion - a key commitment and I think that is absolutely necessary.

And as for the angry questioner, as to why we don't read more of the local experience of Dan's home church - I didn't think that was the idea of the website or the blog at all. It clearly states "Tribute to Ern Baxter" - logic therefore suggests the website will be primarily about Baxter. Anything else is indeed a bonus and an interesting plus.

Keep at it D! x

Sheila said...

The angry anonymous individual reminds me of the lyrics to a Jack Johnson song:

"but everybody thinks that everybody knows
about everybody else but nobody knows
anything about themselves,
because they're all worried about everybody else..."

I have to confess to giggling at Mr/s. Anonymous. What antithesis to grace! As though whomping you over the head about your church attendance would get your *heart* back in church, IF you were out of fellowship (which, I trust, you are not - but if you are/were, don't you just want to RUN into the arms of Mr/s. Anonymous?? Don't you want to see HIM/HER at church? Isn't he/she just *winsome*? *smirk*).

My pastor husband calls these folks the "attendance police". I wonder if badges would make them happy? (WHY, oh WHY do I hear in my head the lines to the old movie: "Badges?? We don't need no stinking BADGES!!"

Sorry if this comment stirs your personal policeman/woman again. A million pardons I'll beg from you, if that happens. (sigh)

I'm rabidly pro-church. I've given my life to her. The local church is God's "plan A" in the earth. Anyone who goes about the business of strengthening her (and strengthening those who serve her) as you have, Dan, deserves at least a pat on the back.

I eagerly await the time to peruse Ern Baxter's messages. They have been a great help to me in recent days. Blessings!

Baxter's Boy said...

Ah Sheila, it is possible that I like you more! Thanks for making me smile! :) When you write like that, the logic used indeed is quite ... special ... ;)

Let me assure you, and anyone else that I am indeed settled and happy in a local expression of the church. But these "whompers" (to use your expression) are part of the very reason why I choose to keep that part of my life private and to myself. The fact that I don't write about my church experience daily or weekly is no reflection on my lack of fellowship and I am most definately not a 'lone ranger' - how can I be listening to Ern Baxter and Terry Virgo - the two greatest advocates of Church around?

God is so gracious that I have managed to find somewhere where the grace of God DOES reign and where God's Spirit IS welcome. But it was no thanks to the "whompers". Anyone who REALLY reads this blog carefully will know that it was due to God's Word being used in the hands of one of His prophets to "break out" in my life and lovingly convict me of "where I was" and draw me to where I should be going.

Sheila ... thank you again!! For making me laugh! :)

PS: For anyone who is interested in a more day to day reflection of where I worship God and fellowship - see "Living Life Now's" blog. He's my best friend and my bodyguard against whompers! ;)

ollie said...

Hear hear Sheila!! I'm so glad you said what you did, and I'm so impressed with your wisdom and sharp prophetic discernment - to really get to the heart of what this person is saying!

Plus you made us smile! :)

Watch out for attendance police and their heavy hands of judgement then eh!? And RUN a mile!!