Friday, February 25, 2011

Biggie Size Your Grace in the Pursuit of Holiness

The Rooted Blog welcomes a new contributor, Andy Cornett. Andy is an assistant pastor and student pastor at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. Andy holds a Masters in Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA and is ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Andy has done student ministry for over a dozen years and brings much to the table for Rooted.

We need a big, thick meaning for the word “grace” and how we talk about it. For many (and I include myself here as too often stuck in this), grace is that thing we only talk about when we’re telling what God has done for Jesus on the cross to save us from of our sins and bring us to Himself. It’s the word we often use to describe some arrangement between God and Jesus that lets us off the hook and gives us eternal life. And then we fumble around with words like “works, obedience, rules, habits, laws” for stuff we’re supposed to do now.

I don’t think that’s enough. If that’s all it is, we’re in cheap grace mode. We need a bigger picture of grace.

Let’s get heavy for a moment: For Calvin and many others in the Reformed tradition, there is the grace of justification (done for us) and the grace of sanctification (done in us). Both are in Christ. They are not separate – they are twin graces, or rather a double movement of the same grace. It is the double embrace of God: Christ embracing us by the Spirit in our sin to bring us to Father, and Christ by his Spirit embracing the Father for us, making the perfect response for us, in our place, on our behalf. These graces are joined.

r If we talk about the first without the second, we are doing cheap grace.
r If we talk about what God saved us from and forget to proclaim what he is saving us for, we are missing the point.
r If we talk about the indicative of justification and don’t follow through its outflow in the imperatives of sanctification, we risk becoming hearers of the word only, and not doers of it.
r If we do the first without the second, we communicate that God’s grace doesn’t mean much of anything for the realities of our daily life and the web of relationships that enmesh us…
r If we talk about the first apart from the second, we’re caught in the language trap of telling people about what God did for them and then struggling to tell them what they’re supposed to do now (which undercuts the truth of the first).

Now let me be clear: I believe that at root the gospel is the announcement that Christ died for our sins, once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. It is fundamentally something that God has done for us, in our place, on our behalf to bring us into his family, to make us his sons and daughters, to give us his own nature and life. It is the astonishing gift of God that floods our hearts and minds. But the announcement is the beginning, not the ending. It’s the doorway, not the house or estate we now live in. If we do not follow that announcement with an unpacking of how now we have crossed from death to life, that we have been rescued/delivered from darkness into light and now must walk as children of the light, we’re not being true to the gospel. Titus 2-3 makes it clear that devoting ourselves to doing good is the only natural response to the grace, mercy and kindness of God who saves us through rebirth in Christ and makes us heirs with him. It makes it clear that God’s grace is our teacher to say “no” and renounce certain ways of life, and say “yes” and rediscover new ways of living that fit who we are now in Christ. These, too, are God’s grace in our life.

Grace is no one-pump gift dispensed from the heavenly realms – it is the constant, steady flow of the life of God himself both for us in Christ and in us by his Spirit. It is the astonishing giving which leaves you speechless. Grace simply IS. Grace is the source for all life lived in the kingdom of the Son of God, and it is marked by righteousness, peace, and joy instead of me and my load of stuff. This grace must be taken far more seriously than we take sin or the fear of lapsing into a legalism. Grace is the Spirit teaching us to trust the Father as we yield our lives in obedience to his Son our Lord.

If we fail to call to students to a life of joyful obedience through the grace of Christ, we have missed the point. If we aren’t calling them to hear his words and put them into practice, then we’re not talking about the Jesus revealed in Scripture. If we talk about grace without connecting it to the discipling work of the Holy Spirit in us, leading us to be an apprentice of Jesus, it must be some other kind of grace than that which Paul was so passionate about. And if we are not talking about a grace-powered life in the kingdom of the Son whom God loves, here and now – then we’re missing out on the joy of pointing students to something way bigger than anything this world can offer.

For God’s sake – don’t back away from it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sanctification: Starting from Higher Ground

One of my favorite pastimes (addictions) is surfing message boards related to Alabama football, predominantly TiderInsider and BamaOnline. I love scouring the threads for inside information about player development, recruiting, coaching changes, and SEC rumors.

The world of football message boards can be toxic, erratic, and exhilarating all at the same time. When Alabama loses a recruit of a football game, the board spirals into a meltdown. After Alabama lands a major recruit, particularly at the expense of a rival, electric euphoria fills the air.

Over the past five years, much has changed with Alabama football, but little has changed in the culture of the message board. Since Alabama hired Nick Saban in 2007, the Tide has risen from an historic national power (with little to show for it on the field from 1997-2006), to now being one of, if not “the,” preeminent power in college football. In the ten years before Saban, Alabama accrued five losing seasons, only one SEC title, and three ten win season. In four years with Saban, Alabama has three ten plus win seasons, a national title, an SEC title, and two SEC West titles. Alabama has won more games in the past three years than any other program, and they have been ranked #1 for nearly half the year in 2008 & 2010. Few expect this overwhelming success to stop any time soon with Alabama racking up their third #1 recruiting class in four years and with nearly all early prognostications pointing to the Tide as having a preseason number two ranking behind the favorite Oklahoma Sooners.

Still, with the new identity as baddest boy on the block, the tone and behavior on message boards has changed little. People still flip out after a loss and attack the coaching staff. Panic ensues when a rival has success. Fans get downright nasty when a recruit de-commits from Alabama and heads to another school. Fear, venom, and complaint still generally define the culture of message boards. (Posters call this “Shula-itis,” referencing the dismal Shula era at Alabama, where the Tide mustered one winning season in four years.)

At times, I just want to scream (or post), have you guys forgotten who we are? We just signed top recruiting class in America. Why are we freaking out over a four star linebacker going elsewhere? We just won the national title in 2009 and probably will again in the next two years. Why are we having a panic attack over the success of another team? We have who many call the best head coach in college football. Why panic over play calls and schemes?

In essence, I am saying that true recognition of our identity in the grander scheme of college football- a national power- naturally should warrant a change in our behavior, compared to the struggling program we were ten years ago.

So it goes with considering sanctification in the Christian life. Too often student ministers teach sanctification as self-improvement or becoming a better person.

This tone suggests that Christ’s work on the Cross was insufficient to make us holy and work is still left to be done. Truly, Christ’s death makes us without blemish in the eyes of God, fully righteous. Jesus makes us a son of the King. As Anglican theologian, Ashley Null, said at Rooted 2010, “God is not interested in making you a better person. He’s interested in helping you live like the person you already are in Christ.”

Hence, recognizing our new identity and status should influence the way we live our lives. In football terms, the top program in football does not have to worry about this recruit or that recruit: we’re going to have our needs met. We don’t have to freak out about other programs: we’re going to beat them most of the time.

In terms of Christianity, a son of the King does not wallow in the things of the world but is above them. A son of the King does not live in fear and anxiety, but walks in the peace and assurance of his or her impenetrable, inherited status.

In no way do I suggest that this article gives a complete theology on grace and the pursuit of holiness. It does not address the reality of helping kids with their everyday sin. I simply say that our starting point for consideration of and conversations about the pursuit of holiness must begin with a recognition of what Christ already has done and who we are through his blood. Hence, the conversation begins focusing on Jesus and His work and lays the Cross as the foundation.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Salvation Accomplished

Mark Howard, assistant to pastor and minister to youth at Trinity Presbyterian in Covington, GA, offers this insightful article in our series about the tension between preaching grace and the pursuit of holiness. Rooted is glad to have Mark as a new contributor to The Rooted Blog.
I appreciate the current discussion between Hood and Ortlund concerning “effort and action” and our sanctification, but I think the focus shouldn’t be so much on how “effort and action” relates to our sanctification - but from where the strength to overcome emanates. Once we know where this power comes from, then our “efforts and actions” should be directed towards being filled with the source. This reality is particularly true in the space of student ministry.

Thus, I believe the fundamental question is this: Are we responsible to muster up the energy and will to put forth the effort and action to overcome sin, or does the power to overcome sin come from God working Christ in us through the Holy Spirit?

If the strength comes from us, then we truly should be preaching the “do more and try harder” way to holiness to students. Our effort is central. But if the strength comes from God through the Holy Spirit’s working Christ in us, then our self-effort in pursuit of holiness is misdirected. Rather, our pursuit should be more of the Triune God in whom the power resides.

So, where does the power to overcome sin and evil originate?

To answer this question, I think its helpful to look at Jesus in his humanity. Born without sin, I believe that he is a good comparison to how someone like Hood views the newly created Christian in Christ: truly able to overcome sin and temptation, free from sins slavery.

And Jesus did face real, painful temptation. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was “like his brothers in every respect” (Heb 4:17) and that he “suffered when tempted” (Heb 4:18). In fact, the author describes Jesus as “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 5:15).

So when we look to Jesus’ pursuit of holiness and overcoming sin what do we see?

We don’t see someone relying on his own strength or his own ability to persevere, rather, we see Jesus crying out to the Father for strength through the Spirit. As the author of Hebrews tells us, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb 5:7).

Jesus’ strength to overcome came from the Father through the Spirit manifest in his human body. Our effort and action must follow the example of Christ: we are to cry out with every fiber of our being to the one who is able to save us, knowing that he has already saved us in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

The apostle Peter in his first letter reminds the Christian that if you are in Christ, you should “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Peter knew his hope wasn’t in himself. It couldn’t be. He knew his limits - even the limits of his “already and not yet” newly created self.

Each time I prepare a sermon, each time I teach or work on a lesson, I have this one question staring me in the face: Mark, where are telling these kids to place their hope? In whom are you asking them to trust?

If I’m asking them to trust in themselves, I’m giving them false hope. Dead hope.

But we have a living hope - the resurrected Jesus, who has in love, graciously united himself to us. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:14).

A tree does not bear fruit because of its own effort. Rather, the tree bears fruit because it is firmly rooted in fertile soil with the power to bring the seedling to maturity. This is why rather than telling those under my teaching to “do more and try harder” to overcome sin, I follow Paul in his exhortation to the Colossians: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col 2:6-7).

Likewise, a newborn infant cannot bring itself to maturity, rather it must be fed and nourished by its mother. This is why I follow the apostle Peter in his pleading: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation - if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet 2:2).

Scripture says that “God is light” (1 John 1:5). If we turn to him, abide in him and cry out for more of him, he will fill us with this light. And “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). I cannot overcome, but the Spirit’s working light within me can - and will. This is the good news of the gospel, not heresy. This is exactly what students needs.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Goodness, Oh Goodness!

Liz Edrington, Youth Minister at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA, writes the first contribution in our new series called "The Pursuit of Holiness".  You can find the background info to this series here.

“Impressing the importance of holiness in the Christian life.”

Three years ago, this phrase would have produced small retching noises in the youth ministry portion of my brain.  “Surely, there are enough sources of ‘morals & values’ teaching bombarding our kids- at school, in ‘family-oriented’ tv shows, by parents,” I would have thought.  And I’d seen so much of youth ministry offered in a WWJD format (or a ‘being a Christian means imitating Jesus’ format), that it would have been difficult not to react adversely to the phrase ‘teaching holiness’ because it would have been associated with a youth ministry M.O. I simply couldn’t (and can’t) swallow- one which often sacrifices focusing on the gospel of our Living Lord for the need to see/provide ‘results’.
But here, we are considering the question, “How do we teach holiness while maintaining the love of Jesus as the anchor?”  This is something that interests me much more, as it contains the most essential thing I think we can offer kids as youth ministers: the love of Jesus as an anchor.  We must begin there and end there.  But we are also responsible for teaching our kids what goodness really is, and for using Scripture to share examples, pictures, and stories of that.

There is no question about it: we are called to be perfect, and to be holy.   (Matthew 5:48 and 1 Peter 1:16- from Levitical references, 2 Peter 3:11, etc.).  And we cannot do this; hence, Jesus died for us and we are now seen as perfect and holy in Him.  But even as believers, we are still sinners who fail to live into our calling to be perfect and holy- although we have the Holy Spirit in us Who works to help us know and do what is right and good. 

So I offer you this: do we really want what is perfect and holy (and therefore Good)?

I think we are made for it, and our kids are made for it.  We are made for God (the only One who is Good-Mark 10:18), and to be in relationship to Him.  But I think sin (and Satan) confuses us so deeply that we often lose sight of this great goodness we’ve actually been made for- which is freedom!  That confusion turns the law- and the importance of holiness- into duty, obligation, and something that seems like it must be generated by the self.  I think we need to be addressing holiness from a perspective of goodness and gift (inseparable from the gospel); it is living toward freedom (by/in/through Jesus) from sin (which causes so much damage and so much pain).  Run from sin, run toward Jesus, toward Love, toward goodness (which includes holiness).

And when kids can’t run, or because sometimes nothing you can say, do, or teach causes them to do this sort of running (as only the Holy Spirit can), be assured that Jesus did all of the running (in the form of dying on the cross) for them and for you.  And He runs after them and after you.  Without an understanding of this suicide marathon on our behalf (the most ultimate, incredible love ever to be offered), talking about or teaching on holiness will never be anything but ‘hamster-in-a- wheel news.’  Living in and toward holiness (which must always remain connected to living in and toward Jesus, as He is the Holy One) is actually freedom from non-holiness (‘bad’ness) and for goodness, which is great news!  But we will need the forgiveness, grace, and Presence of the Lord with every breath, so we must keep the gospel as the starting and ending point for any teaching we do on holiness- otherwise it can seem an endpoint in and of itself.  Goodness, Himself (Jesus) is the endpoint we need to remain connected to in everything we do.