Tag Archives: Grace

The Down Low

The Good Samaritan - Vasily Surikov (1874)
The Good Samaritan – Vasily Surikov (1874)

In the Christian view, every person is made in the image of God and has intrinsic value.[Gen 1:27] This doctrine, sometimes referred to by the Latin term imago Dei, is serious enough that God gives it as the basis for capital punishment when someone murders another human.[Gen 9:6] That each person really does have such high value, as an essential characteristic of their humanity, is nice in theory, but how does that play out? Are the nobodies really as important as the bigwigs and high rollers? While God certainly can use both, it seems like He uses the low people and the “foolish things of the world” to accomplish His work more than the wise and powerful.[1 Cor 1:27-29, James 2:1-5] So, in treating the passed-over people with dignity and respect, we may be closer to working in God’s plans than we are when working with the great and mighty.

Consider that the first disciples called by Jesus were not religious teachers, law experts, or powerful princes. They were only simple fisherman, but notice how God used this fact, as people hearing Peter’s speech were amazed that these weren’t “learned men”.[Acts 4:13]  What they were was honest, humble men, able to report exactly what they saw and heard of the events of Jesus’ ministry on Earth.[Acts 4:19-20] And that’s exactly what was needed of those first disciples – honest eyewitnesses to tell the story. God later used the exact opposite of those rough and tumble fishermen when He selected Saul of Tarsus to be His ambassador. Saul was a Pharisee, the cream of the crop in devotion to the Jewish Law, with a familial and educational pedigree to match. [Acts 22:3, 26:4-5, Phil 3:4-6] Yet his stature and accomplishments blinded him to seeing God’s witness, and ironically, he persecuted the people (Christians) that had found the fulfillment of the Jewish Law he so zealously followed. God had to bring him low before He could build Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Apostle. Once that happened, however, God used Paul’s understanding of the Jewish Law and prophecies to explain His plan of salvation via rich, deep theological treatises like Paul’s letter to the Romans, among others. Paul counted all his previous accomplishments as insignificant compared to the knowledge of Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] Each type of person God called had their purpose, but all needed humility before they could be used to full effect. In fact, God’s entire plan of salvation for the human race wasn’t brought about via the juggernaut of the Roman empire (although He used them to enable the quick spread of His truth when the time came). Nor was it accomplished by Alexander the Great, or any other “great” rulers. Instead, His plan revolved around a small nation, a small tribe, and a nondescript family from a small town, all to bring forth a Savior who would change everything! Indeed, in God’s economy, He chooses to exhibit His power and accomplish His goals specifically through our weakness [2 Cor 12:9], that it may be evident to whom the credit is due.

This inherent value of all people, no matter their position in life, has had significant implications for every Christian. How God values people is how we should value people. Consider the long history of Christians reaching out to those neglected and rejected by the rest of society. Christians started (as in, originated) charitable hospitals in the 4th century to minister to any of the sick at a time when only certain rich or privileged citizens could get medical care.[1] They started asylums to at least try to care for the insane.[2] Christians, as a whole, have consistently opposed infanticide, child abandonment, and abortion from the beginning, recognizing the worth of these most defenseless members of society, and working at great cost to themselves to protect them.[3] They started schools to teach people to read and write wherever they went. In fact, Neil Postman points out that 17th century New England had “quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time.” Equally impressive was women’s literacy rates that far exceeded the best male literacy rates in England at the time. What caused this anomaly? Says Postman, “the religion of these Calvinist Puritans demanded that they be literate.” In addition, Postman also notes that almost all early New England towns passed laws requiring schools be established to teach reading, writing, and grammar, for the express purpose of combating the schemes of Satan.[4] The pilgrims believed that if God has graciously provided His plan in writing, it behooves us to be able to read and comprehend it. But when we read it comprehend it, we are confronted with challenges through the Bible to care for, defend, and help those who can’t take care of themselves. And I couldn’t even begin to list all the Christian charities dedicated to helping orphans, the poor, the starving, the sick, the illiterate, the refugees, the homeless, the handicapped, and on and on. But why? Are we simply “scorin’ points for the afterlife” as Weird Al Yankovich once sang?[5] On the contrary, “we love because He first loved us.”[1 John 4:19] We bless others because of how richly God has blessed us. And no, I’m not talking about that offensive, false, “prosperity gospel” that focuses on fleeting, fickle fortune.  If I lost everything in life, up to and including my life, God’s grace would still make me more blessed than all the riches of all the billionaires in the world. With that in mind, how can I not want to share whatever I do have with others, but especially the free – yet priceless! – good news of salvation through Jesus?

In the Bible, we see the gospel of Christ reaching out across all borders and divisions that typically separated people; gender, class, race, nationality, age, status, education – the invitation was open to all.[Gal 3:28, Col 3:9-11, Rom 10:11-13] In Christ, there are no castes, no untouchables, no one off-limits to reach out to. There is no minimum amount of wealth to “buy in” to heaven, no minimum (or maximum) IQ or educational knowledge to serve God, no minimum number of years invested or minimum number of good deeds required to be saved. He truly makes it so that whoever will can be saved, from the poorest beggar to the richest king, from the grade school dropout to the rocket scientist, from the sweetest child to the most hardened criminal. We all approach the cross of Christ on the same low footing. Without Christ, we are all equally guilty, and yet, all still intrinsically valuable and loved in God’s sight.


[1] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p.155.
[2] ibid., p. 160.
[3] ibid., pp. 48-60.
[4] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (Penguin Books, 1986), pp.31-33.
[5] Weird Al Yankovich, “Amish Paradise”, 1996, the nevertheless cleverly funny parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

 

“Now Hiring: Evangelists”

St. Paul Preaching at Athens - by Raphael
St. Paul Preaching at Athens – by Raphael

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a trend among product vendors to label their marketing as “evangelism”. Autodesk, producer of the Revit software I use (along with I don’t know how many other programs) has “Technical Evangelist” as an actual job title. These are the people usually doing the blogs and seminars and webinars, telling us design professionals how their product will be so incredibly helpful to us in our day to day jobs. And while dictionaries may describe this type of evangelist as “someone who talks about something with great enthusiasm,”[1]  I’d like to suggest that there’s more to these companies’ choice of job titles than just their employee’s attitude. But for that, we have to look back at the origins of the word.

Now maybe you’re familiar with evangelists as preachers. Maybe you’re cynical toward Christianity because of televangelists you’ve seen on TV: maudlin, maybe a little crazy, but like clockwork when it came to asking for money. I understand. But set aside those impressions for a moment, and come back with me to a time before the word was sullied with such behavior. If we dig into the Bible, we’ll find the following statement in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved…”[2]  The noun “gospel” above is εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) in the Greek. Likewise, the verb phrase “preached to you” (or “proclaimed” in other translations) is εὐηγγελισάμην (euēngelisamēn). Remember that in it’s transition from Greek to Latin to English, the “u” became a “v”, and you can then see the root of our word evangelist or evangelism in both of these. But the “eu” at the beginning of both of these words is why companies sometimes call their marketers evangelists: “eu” means good in Greek. The other root, ἄγγελος (aggelos) means a messenger. This is the same word we get “angel” from, for angels serve as messengers of God. Put together, an evangelist is a messenger proclaiming good news or tidings. So when a vendor sends a technical evangelist to talk to me, they’re hoping to deliver a “gospel” of sorts (i.e. good news). And if their product really does work the wonders they promise –  well then, that would be good news!  The key point is, it’s not enthusiasm, but the content of their message that (hopefully) justifies the job title. “Good news” is at the very heart of the word evangelist, by definition. If it’s not good news to the audience, then evangelist may not be the most appropriate job title. But if it really is good news for the people you’re going to, then there’s also a reason to talk about it “with great enthusiasm”.  It’s not just an act then.

Now, what of the original evangelists? Does the Christian gospel actually bring good news? Indeed! Paul’s statement above speaks of the gospel (or good news) “by which also you are saved.” Many see the news that we are all sinners, worthy of condemnation by a just and holy God as bad news – even offensive news – and stop there. But is that part really “news”? When you look at the nightly news, or read the papers or look back through history books, can you honestly say humans are not fallen creatures? In spite of all our scientific and cultural advances, overall, we excel at finding better, more efficient ways to destroy and kill. We tend to be like the classic arch-villian of comics and movies – so much potential for good, yet so often choosing evil. In our heart, in those quiet times of reflection, we recognize that something is wrong at the core of us. And no amount of cultural progress or species evolution could ever fix it. Christianity not only explains our potential for good (we were created in the image of the one truly good God), but also our actual failure to realize that potential (we have all inherited a terminal disease called sin, that is, rebellion against our good Creator). Christianity recognizes the depressing problem that we can’t “fix” ourselves no matter how hard we try, but also proclaims the rest of the story – the amazing solution that God has intervened to do what we never could! Now that’s news.

Allow me to illustrate our trying hard to be good, but still failing. I never learned to swim until high school, when I took swimming lessons. After getting chided by my coach for doing something incorrectly, I flippantly remarked, “Oh well, practice makes perfect”, at which she snapped back, “No! Perfect practice makes perfect!” She was right. Practicing swimming strokes wrong will never make you a better swimmer, no matter how sincerely or devotedly you practice. Religious devotion or trying to lead a “good life” (by whose standard, anyway?) can likewise never succeed. That’s because the standard to meet is perfection. But, as the old sayings go, “to err is human,” and “nobody’s perfect.” In every other religion, you must earn salvation. Only Christianity proclaims this supreme unfairness, that God, in the person of Jesus, perfect and without sin, would become a human like us, to offer Himself as a sacrifice in our place, taking the punishment we justly deserved, that we might be justified and acceptable before God despite our utter inability to ever “measure up.” That’s not just good news – that’s GREAT news! And with news like that, how could we not proclaim it?


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evangelist, accessed 8/8/2016.
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:1, NASB.

Translating Christianese, Part 3

Dictionary Entry - AtonementThe last couple weeks, I’ve gone over the depressing situation we find ourselves in with 3 terms: sin, and holiness and righteousness. Not that they’re depressing in themselves, but they are in the context of our sin in light of God’s holiness and righteousness. And if the story ended there, it would be a tragedy. But today’s first term is “atonement”, and it brings real hope. Our second term, “grace”, explains why.

If God is perfectly just and can’t lower His standards to accept us in our sinful condition, and we can’t rid ourselves of  this dark stain of sin in each of us – what’s the solution? Atonement is the act by which God’s justice is satisfied by the perfect, voluntary, substitutionary sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. Sin put us in debt to God, a debt that we could never pay, but which a perfectly just God could never overlook. Who can pay this debt? Can one in bankruptcy and without a job  ignore his own creditors and offer to pay off his friend’s mortgage?  Of course not. His own creditors would say he owes them first. Only someone with money can pay off a debt, but we’re all spiritually bankrupt on our own. And so we come to a problem: only man owes the debt, but only God can pay it.[1] However, God did something remarkable: He came to earth as the man Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, the only one able to satisfy His legal demand for justice, and voluntarily offered Himself as the payment for the judgement against us. In effect, the judge stepped down from behind the bench and paid the fine we could never pay. This is the atonement needed for us to be reconciled to God, made available to all through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.*   Charles Spurgeon once said,

“The doctrine of the atonement is to my mind one of the surest proofs of the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture. Who would or could have thought of the just Ruler dying for the unjust rebel? This is no teaching of human mythology, or dream of poetical imagination. This method of expiation is only known among men because it is a fact; fiction could not have devised it.”[2]

(Lest I forget my goal of translating church lingo, the “expiation”  Spurgeon referenced is sometimes considered a synonym for atonement, although it can more specifically mean the part of atonement dealing with the covering of sin by Christ’s sacrifice. In that more specific meaning, expiation is the means of “propitiating” (appeasing or satisfying) God. To recap, “one propitiates a person, and one expiates a problem.”[3])

As Spurgeon mentioned, this idea of atonement is unheard of in human-invented religion. When every other religion says “you must work hard and earn your way into heaven/paradise/nirvana/eternal reward/etc, Christianity says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”[4] What then is this grace that drives this supremely sacrificial saving gesture? Grace is commonly remembered as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, or as “completely undeserved (or unmerited) divine favor”. It is God not asking us to “clean up our act” before we come to Him, because we never could. Ironically, grace isn’t fair. We tend to think about fairness when we feel we’ve been wronged, but not so much when we’ve wronged others. If God were fair, He’d simply say “you failed the perfection test” and obliterate all of us. Yet He lovingly extends credit to the debtor if we only accept. Contrary to performance-based religion, God’s grace frees us from pursuing self-righteousness (and failing), so we may simply accept the free gift of our Creator[5]. This gift is His sovereign love for us before we even could love Him, extended to us by His atoning sacrifice for us, covering our sin and paying the penalty for us that His justice demanded, thus satisfying God, reconciling us to Him, and opening the door to new life, both here and eternally.

What does that new life look like? Accepting God’s gracious offer starts a lifelong process that can be divided into the 2 terms we’ll look at next week – “justification” and “sanctification”. See ya then 🙂


* It should be noted that while Jesus’s sacrifice made salvation possible for each of us, not everyone will automatically go to heaven He won’t force us into heaven; we still must accept the offer.

[1] Anselm of Canterbury, “Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?), 1474, as in “Systematic Theology” by Norman Geisler, p. 833.
[2] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, from his message “Just and the Justifier”, in his book “All of Grace”, (1886) included in the 6 book collection “Charles Spurgeon: Christian Classics Collection”, Kindle Edition, Location 680. To read this excellent sermon from the “Prince of Preachers” online, you can go here.
[3] “Propitiation”, www.theopedia.com, accessed 2014-02-01.
[4] Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
[5] Romans 6:23 (NASB)- “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Interestingly, the Greek word translated as “free gift” comes from χάρις (charis), the  root word for grace.