Bounded by Grace

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

I said at the outset that my heart’s desire is that we would learn to delight in our God, and that that delight would be reflected in the way we love to live our lives. I long for the internal music of our heart to be tuned to grace so that the dance of our lives reflects the composer of the tune.

But we fail, don’t we. We trip, we fall. And the Ronstadt Effect kicks in. But those voices are not from God. Instead of ‘you’re no good’ – there is another voice you need to hear, another tune to sing:

“You’re my child, you’re my child, you’re my child…”

Even if we are broken and desperately full of sin, He who paid for our lives on the cross is not going to let us go. He is not going to walk away. He will never disinherit us.

So our sin awakens our eyes again to how much we depend on God’s grace and favor. And when our eyes are so lifted up to him, there is release.

I fail often. I fail as a parent and as a pastor and as a husband. And I grieve over those I hurt when I fail in these ways. And I lament the negative reputation that I gain thereby. And I am disappointed that my ability is so weak, and that God finds so little to work with in me.

And the only way to remedy that is to return to the gospel, to the One whom I know loves me, who makes no requirements of me for his love. The gospel needs to be the music we hear in our heart.

I was captured recently by this quote, from a book I have not read, written by men I do not know. But these words, couched in the form of a word of Jesus to his disciples, rings true, and is something of the song that needs to fuel our hearts:

“What if I tell them there are no lists?  What if I tell them I don’t keep a log of past offenses, of how little they pray, how often they’ve let me down, or made promises that they don’t keep?

“What if I tell them they are righteous, with my righteousness, right now?  What if I tell them they can stop beating themselves up?  That they can stop being so formal, stiff, and jumpy around me?

“What if I tell them I’m crazy about them?  What if I tell them, even if they run to the ends of the earth and do the most horrible, unthinkable things, that when they come back, I’d receive them with tears and a party?

“What if I tell them that if I am their Savior, they’re going to heaven no matter what—it’s a done deal?  What if I tell them they have a new nature—saints, not saved sinners who should now ‘buck-up and be better if they were any kind of Christians, after all he’s done for you!’

“What if I tell them that I actually live in them now?  That I’ve put my love, power, and nature inside of them, at their disposal?

“What if I tell them that they don’t have to put on a mask? (or hide) That it is ok to be who they are at this moment, with all their junk.

“That they don’t need to pretend about how close we are, how much they pray or don’t, how much of the Bible they read or don’t?

“What if they knew they don’t have to look over their shoulder for fear if things get too good, the other shoe’s gonna drop?

“What if they knew I will never, ever use the word punish in relation to them?  What if they knew that when they mess up, I will never ‘get back at them?’ What if they were convinced that bad circumstances aren’t my way of evening the score for taking advantage of me?

“What if they knew the basis of our friendship isn’t how little they sin, but how much they let me love them?

“What if I tell them they can hurt my heart, but that I’ll never hurt theirs?

“What if I tell them they can open their eyes when they pray and still go to heaven?

“What if I tell them there is no secret agenda, no trapdoor?

“What if I tell them it isn’t about their self-effort, but about allowing me to live my life through them?”

What if? This is what He does tell us.

What if? There is rest, there is joy, and there is a longing to obey.

Obedience and Life

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

Obedience is a part of the Christian life, but it does not define the Christian life. It is exposed by Scripture, and comprehended in community. It is motivated by love, and aimed at Christ-likeness. And finally,

IV. Obedience overcomes despair and opens the door to joy.

The passage as a whole is a transition from despair, to peace. But to mention obedience before a congregation of sensitive people is to raise the anxiety level and to breed further despair. We’ve not been successful in the past and we can’t see things changing in the near term future. So, you ask, “Why further traumatize me?”

Remember that John’s concern is life. And obedience is a path to life. Obedience is discerned from Scripture, understood in community, and as a good shepherd and father the Holy Spirit nurtures us along slowly. Obedience is choosing the right thing, the one thing, step by step, as He leads us, and by this means, He leads us in the path of life and joy.

There is life in obedience that might not always be evident from the outside.

Years ago, I was a college junior with a stack of books eighty feet tall needing to be read. So, one Sunday, after church, I sat in a dorm lobby with my girlfriend, one day to be my wife, and I read and read and read, and the more I read, the more the stress rose.

As the need for relief grew more intense, I finished a book and hurled it across the room. And that seemed a perfect time to begin to reflect on the 4th commandment – the command to keep the Sabbath.

I remembered how I had been urged by a Christian friend (notice the community involvement) to see this commandment as having been given by God for my delight. So I decided from that point on to not work – to not do my ordinary labor, my studies – on Sunday. I determined to legitimately take a sabbath no matter what the cost.

And there was no cost. From that point on my work got done, and the stress dissipated. Obedience brought life.

We would be wrong then to assume that the fruit of peace in this came from the act. The law and the desperation drove me to Jesus, and Jesus gave life. The fruit does not come from the act of obedience; the fruit comes from God. Change does not come from obedience; change comes from God.

But obedience is an integral part of the path of life into which Jesus has brought us.

Aiming to Christ-likeness

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

Obedience begins with Jesus, and it ends with him. It begins with love for him and it aims at his likeness.

B. Obedience aims at Christ-likeness.

If the moral law is really moral because it reflects the holy character of God, then conformity to the law will reflect the attributes of God, that is, the character of Jesus. Obedience ultimately is conformity to the character of God as we live out our lives in the world. The obedient Christian is one who in love to Jesus is becoming more like him.

That would be an overwhelming thought, and impossible to conceive, were not these things developed in the context of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who is developing these attributes within us.

Jesus in our text promises the Holy Spirit:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth… (16, 17)

Among those many works which the Spirit will do is to develop within us qualities which reflect Jesus. Paul alludes to this in his letter to the Galatians.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22, 23)

These qualities of the Spirit’s work are really the qualities which defined Jesus. While we are struggling over what it means to obey, quietly the Spirit is building Christ-like character into us. And that is what we should covet.

I may miss exactly how to pray with my family or I may vote for the wrong person. I may dress wrongly and I may speak when I should be quiet. I will certainly stumble and fall and fail and wilt. But I have confidence that as my heart is holding on to Christ and aimed toward him, that God through his Spirit is building within me his character. The aim of obedience is Christ-likeness. And to this end the Holy Spirit is leading us.

The Southern Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell was the founding president of the University of South Carolina, and founding professor of Columbia Theological Seminary. He was known for his fierce intellect with which he would devastate in argument those opposed to him. He was strict with his outward obedience, and ruthless in his public argument.

But what stood out for me as I read his biography a few years ago was that these qualities changed. To the end of his life, he maintained a strict outward obedience. But his interaction with others grew softer, his public discourse more gentle and patient. Jesus was building his heart in him. The goal of obedience was being formed in him by the Holy Spirit.

That is the goal we seek. Outward obedience is important, of course. But the goal, and that for which we long, is the inner trans-formation of our spirit which reflects Jesus to those around us.

Quoted last week on the internet was this sentence from CS Lewis:

“A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness, and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride.” —C.S Lewis

It’s not much good for me if I’m keeping the Sabbath religiously, and so strict about truthfulness that I won’t even stretch the truth to make a good surprise birthday party, if I’m lacking contentment, peace, patience, and joy.

These are the things I covet.

Obedience is motivated by love aiming to Christ-likeness.

Motivated by Love

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

Even if we know that obedience is important, and know where to find the commands and how to understand them, really, what might we be looking for? What does the obedient Christian look like?

It may be that we need to adjust our answer to that a bit. We color that answer with reference to external matters when in reality the essence of obedience is really internal.

III. Obedience is motivated by love aiming to Christ-likeness.

Jesus does not simply say ‘do what I say’. He says that, of course. But that is not all he says. He begins and ends obedience with himself. It is not obedience that defines the Christian life. It is, rather, Jesus.

If we are not careful we will miss his emphases. Notice how he himself is prominent in this statement:

If you love ME, you will keep MY commandments. (15)

The Christian life begins and ends with Jesus, meaning first that

A. Obedience is motivated by love.

In the same way we’ve made the case that love is not mere sentiment, so we must make the case that obedience is not mere mechanics. It is possible to obey without love. And that is not the Christian life. Surely it is inadequate to say one loves and then not obey. But it is as well inadequate to obey without love.

To generalize, we are to be neither poets nor engineers.

The poet loves deeply with his affections and is free-spirited in his actions; the engineer is precise in his actions, and challenged in his affections.

The Christian is to be both a lover who obeys and a follower who loves deeply the one he follows. It is possible to be a great doer, and a poor lover and a great lover and a poor doer.

It is love for Jesus that motivates obedience, and it is the love from Jesus that stimulates love for him. It all starts and ends with HIM.

If obedience is a struggle, the first remedy is not to try harder at doing. Oh, we may need to try harder, of course. But that is not where we start. If obedience is a struggle, the root problem is the heart. We first need to address our love. I may lack the strength to obey because my heart has not been moved to worship and love.

The first step toward obedience, whether my own, or my children, or my church, is to have my and their hearts turned back toward Jesus. To hear again the gospel of his love for me is what stirs the dim affections of my heart. And then, loving him, I will have greater strength to keep HIS commandments.

If you love ME, you will keep MY commandments. (15)

Obedience is motivated by love – it begins and ends with Jesus.

Obedience Is Learned

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

Obedience, I should add, then is something we grow into.

Imagine a father who took his two year old son aside to tell him what was expected of him in life.

“Son,” he says, “There are a number of things which you need to attend to as you go through life – things that will contribute to your life and happiness.” And for the next week without stop he lectures the son on all the rules that we as adults take for granted.

About day five, he’s addressing plagiarism and how he should never give his schoolwork to another to copy. This is something everyone should know, so he lays it out. For his two year old.

Midway through day six he’s explaining the rules for when and where he should stop for a school bus and other emergency vehicles. Life is full of rules, and so to succeed in life this two year old needs to know them.

Ridiculous, of course.

Children grow into obedience. They grow into ‘doing the right thing’, learning what that is in the context of living, with parental instruction and guidance. That is, they learn it in community.

We similarly grow into obedience – we grow in our understanding as we grow, through the Scriptures and through, quite literally, the company we keep. I don’t expect a toddler to keep all the food on the table, but a fifteen year old had better. Through regular participation in the community and in worship and in the Word, we learn obedience as we grow.

Understood in Community

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

If we can’t trust our hearts to be a sure compass for God-honoring behavior, can we trust ourselves to be a sure interpreter of Scripture? Nope. So, obedience which is discovered by Scripture must be understood and applied in community.

B. Obedience is understood in community.

We need a community of Bible saturated and Jesus loving people to help us apply Scripture to our lives. We were not meant to learn obedience alone.

Once upon a time there was a woman tempted to act, to follow her heart. And so she acted apart from the community that God had given her. Her name was Eve and she did not bother to consult with Adam before eating the fruit that looked so good to her. The consequences were disastrous.

Community is essential to wrestling through the question of obedience.

The Apostle Peter was a recovering racist. For most of his life, the Gentiles were dogs and he would never eat with them. But God gave him a vision which helped him understand that the Gospel removed the barrier between him and the Gentiles.

But his racism would creep back in, and on at least one occasion, he needed Paul to get in his face to remind him that his racist choices were not in obedience to Jesus.

Obedience is something that is directed by Scripture, but worked out practically in community.

Living the Christian life requires more than a Bible. It requires a wise and godly Christian community. In Colossians 3 Paul tells us to

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…,”

We read this as a command for us to become individually biblically literate. But that is not his goal. His desire is that the Christian community may minister wisdom and grace to one another:

…teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

Obedience is comprehended in community.

False teaching – whether it is Eve’s raw disobedience or false asceticism or cultic practices – will always follow a strategy of divide and conquer. False teaching isolates a single sheep, or a group of like thinking sheep, and can then pour its poisonous vision into them. We must resist that.

The community we inhabit is a community stretching back 2000 years and embracing a world 25,000 miles in circumference. Understanding that alone will help us gain a better picture of many commands. But as well will the counsel and insight of the culturally sensitive and godly communities God has placed us in now.

We are, for example, told to love our neighbor. But what does that mean by way of application? We learn the answer in community. Does it mean I help my neighbor move his brother in with him? Does it mean I help him move his girlfriend in with him? What does it mean?

Such a question cannot be considered outside the context of our broad community.

When I’ve lost all bearings, when my supports have crashed, when I’m lost, I need community to help take me by the hand in the midst of my fear and confusion to know what Scripture would require of me.

Obedience is mediated through Scripture and through community.

Directed by Scripture

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

Obedience is a part of the Christian life, but it does not define the Christian life. But even when we get these things straight, we still are left wondering WHAT to obey. There is no shortage of those willing to volunteer their expertise on this matter. So, where do we find clarity on what to obey? Again, we need to grapple with two critical components:

II. Obedience is directed by Scripture and understood in community.

When Jesus says, “You will keep my commandments…” it is natural to ask, “What are his commandments?”

In an article about NCAA sports, it is mentioned that an Oklahoma State baseball player a few years ago was suspended for violating “NCAA Bylaw 12.3.2.1”. We easily wonder if the “Jesus Code of Obedience” is so precisely defined. For some of us, it is.

Clearly, though, if it is Jesus’s commandments that we are to obey, then to find them we must find them in the only place where his words are recorded.

A. Obedience is discovered in Scripture.

The commandments are the words of Jesus. They are the imperatives that Jesus gives such as this:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)

But Jesus does not break it down, does he? There is no “Jesus Bylaw on love: 12.3.2.1” His law is clear, but its application something to be worked out.

Elsewhere, he says this:

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

His commands speak of acting in a certain way, but they also speak to how we respond to him. To ‘act’ is obedience; to ‘rest’ is obedience. Both point to paths of obedience. But with both, the application is daunting. The obedience that is discovered in Scripture – both Old and New Testaments – covers all of life.

Locating the norm of obedience in the Scriptures is important because we otherwise have unreliable moral compasses. I think back to the day that I was sitting with a friend who was actively in the process of leaving his wife and pursuing a relationship with another woman. He found it easy to dismiss my cautions, because he was, he said, following his heart.

If I break that down, it meant that he was conforming his life to his inward desires. He was trusting his heart which the Scriptures themselves say is not to be trusted. It is broken, it is deceitful, it is often blind. It is in the Bible where the commandments of Jesus are given by which obedience is to be measured. Our inward desires are not to be trusted.

Missing: Sermon Piece

Oops.

I have been, as you may know, serializing a sermon preached a few weeks ago. I just realized this morning that in so doing, I dropped out a piece. I don’t think it leaves a big gap in the flow and logic of the whole, but its absence bothers me.

So, I have posted it, in its proper location, though this means that two installments appeared on one day. This should complete it.

Sorry about that!

Obedience Does Not Define the Christian Life

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

Obedience is a part of the Christian life – as obedience was a part of the life of Jesus, joyfully performed as a response of love.

But…

B. Obedience does not define the Christian life.

We are not justified in saying that the Christian life is the same as obeying Jesus and keeping the law. It is bigger than that. The Christian life is no more equated with obedience than heel and sit adequately define a dog’s life. A dog is all about jumping up on his owner’s lap, and corralling the kids in the back yard.

Certainly, a dog obeys – but that is not what makes a dog. And it is not what makes a Christian.

A few years ago there was a big fad among Christians to put “Ten Commandments” signs in their yard or on their car. I felt that this was in one way an attempt to ‘stick it to’ the secular culture that found such things offensive. But when we identify ourselves as Christians by putting lists of rules in our yards, what does that communicate to the world? It simply confirms what the world already assumes, that Christianity is about legal compliance. But it is not.

The Bible is a story of God’s love for his people and the extent to which he would go to prove that love. It is not about the rules.

The Christian life is a life of love of which obedience is the fruit, not the other way around.

If we can get this straight, then the Christian life will be much more joyful! Obedience is a part of the Christian life, but it does not define the Christian life.

Obedience Is Part of the Christian Life

[Note: this is a continuing part of a series reproducing a sermon. An explanation can be found here.]

In grappling with the place of obedience in the Christian life, the first thing to understand is that

I. Obedience is a part of the Christian life, but does not define the Christian life.

Living as a disciple of Jesus is something that has many layers, not one. The Christian life is not just ‘doing good’. A Christian is someone who sees himself as a part of God’s story, the story of sin and fall and redemption, who is trusting in Jesus’ work as that which brings him into a renewed and reconciled relationship with God.

And this passage reminds us that our hope is rooted in Jesus, and is lived out through anticipation of his return and through an intimate relationship with God. And this relationship with God is lived out through prayer, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, through love, and 
through obedience. This is all a part of this chapter. Clearly, obedience is a part of the Christian life, but does not define the Christian life. And both of these propositions we need to hold onto.

A. Obedience is a part of the Christian life.

When Paul says that we are ‘under grace, not under law’ he is not saying that there is no law to which the Christian life should conform. By grace Christ saves us and by grace he changes us, and his commandments are integral to both of those actions.

We see this in John’s writings as well. Grace is central in John as we see Jesus giving his life out of love for his unworthy friends. And it is grace as well by which Jesus reveals his care for those for whom he would die by giving them direction in how they might live.

And so he says

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (15)

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. (20)

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word (23)

Whoever does not love me does not keep my words (24)

Commandments and grace go together in our relationship with Jesus just as they did in Jesus’ relationship with his Father. The love between the first and second member of the Trinity is nothing we can adequately fathom, but that gracious relationship was in no way hindered by an expectation of obedience.

Jesus says, “And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (24) Jesus, deeply loved by the Father, did not act on his own, but did whatever the Father told him. In fact, he acts in this way because he loves the Father.

“I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (31)

A deep, free, grace filled love relationship is not somehow sullied or nullified by commandments and obedience.

Obedience is a part of the Christian life – as obedience was a part of the life of Jesus, joyfully performed as a response of love.

But…