Archives For Grace

Bob ArmstrongSeveral years ago, an 80 something year old man walked into one of our classrooms. We often have older “students” sit in on our classes, members of various churches who want to continue growing in their knowledge of the Bible and the world. But it quickly became clear that Bob was not a typical “auditor.”

Our professors could hardly get through five minutes of their lectures without an objection from Bob. And Bob’s objections came in the form of loud grunts followed by aggressively expressed opinions. I remember teaching a class on Paul and having to suddenly field this objection from Bob: “I don’t think Paul actually believed anything he wrote. I think he was in cahoots with the Roman government, and wrote what he did to throw people off.” Needless to say I hadn’t prepared to address that particular theory, so I responded with something along the lines of, “Wow, okay. I can’t think of a single thing in Paul’s writings that would support that theory, but I’d love to talk to you more about it after class.”

Sometimes Bob asked good questions, but for the most part, his objections were off-the-wall, groundless, and frequent.

It wasn’t long before our professors were asking each other, “Have you had Bob in class? What’s his deal?”

It turns out Bob was invited to class by one of our for-credit students: Dave. Dave had just left his teen years, and would talk to Bob at the YMCA where they both worked out. Bob had never considered himself a Christian, but as Dave continued to befriend him and talk to him about Jesus, Bob eventually became curious enough to accept Dave’s invitation to sit in on some Bible classes. I still tear up when I think of this sweet, faithful guy in his twenties patiently and graciously befriending this lonely, grumpy guy in his eighties. To an extent that we’ll never fully appreciate, the Kingdom of God expands through smiles and simple greetings.

I’ll admit that Bob was more of a nuisance than anything else at the beginning. Some professors had to talk to Bob about not disrupting the class with frequent objections, asking him to save his comments for after class.

But then a curious thing happened. Bob began showing up early to church services and greeting the congregation as they walked in. He didn’t do this in an official capacity—he just wanted to do it. He became more friendly and began speaking fondly of Jesus and of many of the things he was learning. Eventually, we were all sure that Bob loved Jesus, that his heart had been transformed.

As we got to know the new Bob, we learned that his first 80-some years of life were very lonely. He fought in three wars (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) and experienced situations that haunted him for the rest of his life. He was even used as a “model” to test radioactivity-proof clothing, which means that he and his squad crouched in a desert bunker as an atomic bomb was detonated. With his eyes closed and hands covering his face, he said it was the brightest thing he had ever seen. Surprising, Bob never grew any extra arms, but he is quick to affirm that the clothing didn’t work.

After a lifetime of being more or less alone, Bob became part of a family. He took every class he could at the college, took professors and students out for breakfast and lunch, and frequently expressed his appreciation for his new family in Christ.

Post-conversion Bob could still be a bit of a curmudgeon. As an 80 something year old theological novice, Bob stumbled into more than a few odd doctrinal views, but he never stopped discussing the Bible and the Jesus he had come to love so dearly. The new Bob was frequently in tears. Mention Jesus and Bob would be sobbing. He was so struck by the brotherhood of believers that he insisted I call him “Brother Bob” whenever I greeted him. He was so deeply appreciative of Jesus that he would often rebuke me for not using the term “the Lord Jesus.” Bob could be an absolute grump, and the exasperated objections continued throughout his late educational career. But the new Bob was a man who loved Jesus, and we knew he was a man who loved people as well (even if he still barked).

During the last few years of his life, Bob put a lot of effort into planning his memorial service and inviting everyone he could to attend. Jesus was calling him home, Bob said, and he wanted his memorial to be a celebration. It took a few years for his actual earthly end to arrive, but Bob never tired of talking about the day he would be with Jesus. Overplanning his own memorial was Bob’s way of making sure everyone he left behind would remember what really matters.

St. Augustine’s famous words express well Bob’s feelings toward the end of his life: “Late have I loved you, Beauty so old and so new. Late have I loved you.” For me, the curious case of Bob Armstrong will always be a reminder that God is never done with a person’s life; that it’s never too late to be a learner, never too late to start again; that a prickly exterior does not always reveal was is happening beneath the surface; that no one is ever beyond the reach of God, no matter how hard or how long they’ve been running.

[Anyone in the Simi Valley area this weekend is encouraged to join us in celebrating God’s artistry in the life of Bob Armstrong. See details below.]

Bob's Memorial

The following is an excerpt from my book, Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014), 45-46. At the end of the post, enter to win a free copy of Charis!

“Bad little girls get thrown away,” Cynthia reasoned when at five years old she found out she was adopted. She didn’t understand how her parents could give up their Charis front cover_w:tullianchild if they loved her, so Cynthia logically concluded that she was unloved and unworthy—valueless.

All humans crave value; it’s in our DNA. So Cynthia tried to satisfy her craving in unhealthy ways. Maybe sex will give me value, she thought. I want to feel happy; I want to feel loved. A friend of hers had a father with a stash of porn magazines, so the two girls raided the stash and began acting out the sexual activities plastered across the pages. Maybe homosexual sex is where value could be found. The two girls were about seven years old.

When Cynthia was around fourteen, she was sexually abused by a guy in his midtwenties. She then explored value through alcohol, drugs, more sex, and slashing her body with a razor. “I hated myself with a passion,” Cynthia recalls. “I didn’t need people to put me down. Because I did it fine from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed. The inner dialogue that went on in my head was I was stupid, I was not wanted, I was ugly. The only thing I was good for was sex.”

More drugs, more sex, more cutting. When Cynthia was seventeen, she married a boy with a similar past and quickly got pregnant.3 Cynthia’s story is frighteningly typical. One in every five girls and one in every twenty boys are victimized by sexual abuse. Twentyeight percent of fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds have been sexually abused on some level as children or teens.4

Eating disorders are rapidly increasing among teens and even among young children. Kids under twelve experienced a 119 percent increase in eating disorders between 1999 and 2006, and the statistics continue to rise.5

But it doesn’t matter where you fall in the statistics. God doesn’t see you as garbage, unwanted, fat, or ugly. Where you see defects, God sees a crown and a robe of glory. You are covered in God’s fingerprints, with God’s breath in your nostrils.

A few years later, Cynthia found Jesus, the One who crowned her with glory and honor. The pain of her past will never fully leave her, but neither will it condemn her. “I have intrinsic value no matter what,” Cynthia says, “just because God made me.” Though she was unwanted and abused, God has crowned her with beauty and love. Some of the greatest lies you’ll ever believe are told by your eyes as you gaze into a mirror. Lies fueled by your own doubt and a culture that worships a false standard of beauty and worth. Beauty is formed in the eye of the beholder. But your Beholder is God. He made you in His own image; He gave you that crown.

I love the redemption Cynthia found in Christ because it challenges a common misconception about God. Too often we think that having a high view of God means we have a low view of people. In fact, I remember reading those very words at the top of a church’s doctrinal statement many years ago:

We seek to have a high view of God and a low view of man

I get the motivation behind this statement. We want to elevate God; we don’t want to worship mankind. But this statement suggests that people have little value, little worth. But we’re created in God’s image and Jesus paid a very high price to restore us back to our Creator. He paid a high price for us (His own blood) since we had an expensive price tag on our heads that reads, Created in God’s Image.

Think about that. We have an exalted status above everything else in creation. We bear God’s image not just by what we do—think, feel, imagine, relate—but simply by who we are. A quadriplegic two-year-old with Down syndrome possesses the CharisSocMed_02image of God and therefore has infinite worth and value in the eyes of God, not because of what she does, but because of whom she reflects. Every human, every single one, bears the glorious image of the transcendent Creator.

Rich, poor, successful, homeless, healthy, disabled, black, white, brown, young, old, famous, abused, abusive, pervert, or priest—whoever you are and whatever you have or have not accomplished—if you are human, then you are cherished and prized and honored and enjoyed as the pinnacle of creation by a Creator who bleeds charis. If you’re reading, listening to, or following the braille dots of this book, you are infinitely more majestic and beautiful than the glimmering peaks of Mount Everest, the soothing turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the commanding cliffs of Yosemite, or the well-titled Grand Canyon, which God carved out of Arizona.

Bad girls don’t get thrown away. They get delighted in by a shameless God on a relentless pursuit to love broken people.

 

Enter below to win one of 10 free copies of Charis! You have until Friday July 18th to qualify.

 

Enter to Win a Free Copy of Charis

I often get asked if I’m “Reformed.” Oftentimes people just assume that I’m “Reformed.” Since I don’t care for labels and resist giving yes or no answers to always reformingcomplex questions, I usually give an answer much longer than the asker cared to receive.

I’m I “Reformed?” No, but I am “reformed”—lower-case “r.” Here’s why.

I believe that God’s agency is primary, prior to, and causative of a person’s response to God in salvation. (Whoa dude, I thought this was “Theology for Real Life,” not “Theology for Real Geeks.”) In other words, I chose God because He first chose me. I repented and believed because God’s Spirit enabled me to. When I heard the gospel, God opened up my heart to understand and welcome the truth, just like He did to Lydia in Acts 16.

I also emphasize, cherish, and rejoice in God’s sovereignty over all things. I love it. I don’t always understand it, but I love the fact that God reigns over the universe. I believe that God can do whatever God wants to do, and He can tell me to do whatever He wants to tell me what to do. He’s God. I’m created. He makes up the rules. I’m only to follow them. From Genesis through Revelation, with some extended pit stops in Job, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Romans 9, the Bible celebrates God’s freedom. Sometimes it’s hard to rejoice in. Still, the Bible doesn’t seem to make excuses for God’s actions in the world. He made it. He governs it. He will redeem it as He sees fit. And I live by this truth. Yes, I’m “reformed.”

I also believe in and will take a bullet for the authority of the Bible. Our beliefs and behaviors should be derived from the text—even if the text offends our presuppositions and tradition. If my student says “I believe that God…” I immediately ask where? What passage? What book? What theological theme are you deriving your beliefs from? When my heart says, “I feel like God is…” I challenge my deceitful heart with the God-breathed text. Yes, I’m “reformed.”

But I’m not “Reformed.”

I’m not part of any specific “Reformed” tradition and I think that the Bible challenges all theological systems—not just Arminian ones. And not everything about the “Reformed tradition” (or traditions) rightly captures, to my mind, what the Bible actually says. In fact, just the other day I hung out with a bunch of Arminians from the Nazarene tradition and I was pleasantly shocked at just how passionate they were about the gospel, the authority of Scripture, and even God’s sovereignty in salvation and the world. Sure, we may quibble about the ordo salutus and finer points of the atonement, but on the central points of the gospel I felt that we were on the same team. Unfortunately, some “Reformed” people only know of one team; the “Reformed” team. No, I’m not “Reformed.” I love to learn from people outside my tradition.

I’m also very willing to ditch, reevaluate, shift and sift various doctrines that have been traditionally called “Reformed.” That is, if the Bible demands it. Justification, sanctification, baptism, hell, heaven—we lay them all before the text of calvin and lutherScripture because we’re reformed. We don’t lock them in a safe and throw away the key because we’re Reformed. Remember, semper reformanda: “always reforming.” To be truly reformed is to be in a constant state of humbly submitting what you think the text says before the text itself since the text—not your, or your favorite Reformed preacher’s, understanding of the text—is inspired and authoritative.

And I believe in grace. Not just the “doctrines of grace” but “incarnating grace.” Showing favor (grace) unconditionally (biblical grace) to people of every sexual orientation. If believing in the doctrines of grace doesn’t move you to love your enemies, then you don’t really believe in the doctrines of grace. You endorse them. Sign off on them. Nod your head when you’re reading Calvin’s Institutes. But until we love the unlovable, we fail to incarnate grace and imitate the one who died for His enemies.

Jesus. Died. For. His. Enemies.

He calls His followers to merely love them. He cut us some seriously slack!

And I’m not Reformed because, well, many Reformed people I know seem arrogant. I know this is a stereotype, a generalization, so if you know a ton of people who are both Reformed and humble, then please ignore this paragraph. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve been around a bad crop. But most Reformed people I’ve met, hung out with, read, and listen to, give off an overly confident, some would say arrogant, air about their beliefs. Again, this isn’t all of them, but in my experience it’s a lot of them. And almost all of my friends who are turned off by a reformed way of thinking are actually turned off more by their Reformed friends than their beliefs. So even though I hope I’m alone, I don’t think I am. For some reason, discovering the doctrines of grace becomes like a second conversion where the Reformed person now has it all together, doctrinally speaking, and looks down upon all those lesser species of Christians who are merely 4 or 3 point Calvinists.

I know this, because I used to be one. I was so locked into an airtight theological system and I thought, or knew, I had it all figured out. And I honestly looked down upon people who weren’t Reformed like I was. It didn’t matter that they led hundreds of people to Christ, if they called people to “choose Christ” or quoted the “Nearly Inspired Version” (NIV), they were a lesser-informed Christian. And I looked down upon them. I was overly confident. I was arrogant. I was ignorant and acting contrary to the doctrines of grace.

I’ve since abandoned this way of thinking, even though I’m still reformed. I still believe that God does all things ultimately to bring glory to His name. I believe there is a real hell. I think that election is unconditional. And God’s sovereignty is broadcasted and celebrated on every page of Scripture. But believing these things should push us to be more humble, more careful about thinking you have it all together theologically.

Yes, I’m reformed. But I’m not Reformed.

Is it ever okay for Christians to use vulgar language?

Charis front cover_w:tullianThis question is particularly pertinent to me, since my book Charis takes liberties that might offend some people. While the response to my book so far has been good, I’ve received not a few reactions that go something like… “I don’t think my grandma will like this book” or “some people will be offended at your language.” One friend of mine was having his wife read the book out loud while they were driving, but he told her to skip chapter 6 (titled “Whore”) because he couldn’t hear her say those words out loud.

Just to be clear, I don’t use any four-letter words in the book. Only five-letter ones. And I never say anything that, in my mind, goes beyond what the Bible (in its original language) actually says.

The plain and undeniable fact is: The Bible at times uses vulgar and offensive language. In fact, there isn’t a single literal translation of Ezekiel 16 on the market. You have to know Hebrew to fully understand that chapter in the Bible, because the Hebrew is just too graphic (The Message comes closest). The same goes for Song of Songs and other portions of the Bible.

But let me share my heart. I want you to know where I’m coming from. I know that the use of crass and vulgar language has become trendy in some Christian circles, and some Christian preachers seem to enjoy shocking their audience simply because they…enjoy shocking their audience. But that’s not me. There is nothing in me, and nothing in my book, that is designed to say things in a shocking way simply to get a rise out of some people. Shock for the sake of shock is immature and unchristian. I have no desire to push some undefined envelope just to thumb my nose at people more conservative than I.

However, I also have no desire to censor the Bible where it was designed to offend, stir up, or shake the overly religious out of spiritual complacency.

As I said, the Bible uses offensive, vulgar, and sometimes quite pornographic (that is: “graphic sexual imagery”) language. Our English translations will dim down the language, and there may be times when unleashing the original language is inappropriate. But my book Charis is written for adults, not children.

So I deal with Genesis 38 and Ezekiel 16 and Hosea. I don’t pass over what Zipporah did to her son in Exodus 4 or Abraham’s past life in Ur. Gomer was not a prostitute but a sexually promiscuous woman, and I explain why this matters. The best English equivalent to zoneh, in certain contexts, is whore (that five-letter word). Hosea would have shocked his audience; if our preaching of Hosea doesn’t shock ours, then perhaps we’re not being as faithful to the text as we should. I’m not trying to be edgy just to be edgy, and I asked my many editors to tell me if they thought I went beyond the actual text (sometimes I did, and those bits didn’t make it into the final draft). I put much thought into every word that I said, and every word I wrote I wrote for a reason. Again, my motivation is not to sound hip or crass or vulgar. It’s to be biblical.

My motivation is and will always be the same: To proclaim and celebrate the word of God in all its grit and grime. Because the scandal of grace is often buried in a pile of religious bumper stickers trying to keep the gospel strapped in a pew. And if that’s how God talks about grace, then so be it. But he doesn’t. He talks about all kinds of sin—the deep, dark stuff—that he rescues us from. Because this impresses on our soul the magnitude of his grace.

My motivation with every word in Charis is to be most faithful to the word of God in its original language, and I want to impact my audience with the message of grace in the same way that the Bible would have impacted (perhaps offended) its own audience. That’s my motivation. Not to be edgy, not to be cool. But to be faithful to God’s word, which I’m determined to teach faithfully.

In any case, I still give this warning in the Preface:

Grace is a dangerous topic. We often want to domesticate it, calm it down, stuff it into a blue blazer and a pair of khakis. But biblical grace—or charis, as you’ll see—doesn’t like to settle down. It doesn’t drive a minivan and it sometimes misses church. To prove this, we’re going to venture on a journey across the land of Israel, and I’m not bringing a pacifier. If you need to scream, I’ll roll down the window. If you want to get off in the next town, sorry, doors are locked. Grace is a dangerous topic because the Bible is a dangerous book. It wrecks people, it offends people, and it’s tough to read from the suburbs. If you’re under eighteen, you might want to find another book on grace. There are plenty out there.

The following is an excerpt from Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us.

The relationship between grace and obedience is a gnarly issue, and too often you have to hack your way through a theological jungle to sort out the problem. In general, there are three different explanations Christians give to how grace relates to obedience.

Some Christians say that obedience is good but not necessary. What Christians do or don’t do is icing on the cake. It would be good for you to respond to Jesus with obedience, but either way, we’re still saved by grace through faith. If we smuggle God vinedresserobedience in the back door of salvation, then grace is no longer grace. We’ll call this the “free grace” view.

Others say that God has done His part and that now it’s our turn to do our part. God saves, but we are responsible for obedience. God is certainly available to counsel us when we need Him, and He has call-waiting. But ultimately, it’s up to us to work out our salvation.

I don’t think either of these views accurately captures the relationship between grace and obedience. Because neither of them talks about energism. Energism is the third view, and to my mind, it’s the most accurate way to understand the relationship between grace and obedience.

The word energism was coined by New Testament scholar John Barclay. He came up with it after studying Galatians 2:8, where Paul said that the same God who “worked [energesas] through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked [energesen] also through me for mine to the Gentiles.” The word worked translates the Greek word energeo, from which we get the word energy. Here, Paul talked about God working in and through Peter and Paul in their ministries. And in the very next verse, Paul described these same ministries in terms of “the grace that was given” to both Peter and himself.

God, in His grace, worked in Peter and Paul—two sinners unworthy of favor and incapable of doing anything on their own—to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Energism, therefore, refers to God working in and through us to do his will. If we talk about obedience as our response to God—God does His part; now we do ours—this places too big of a wedge between God’s work and ours. When we get saved, we become united with Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, so that it’s impossible to untangle Christ’s empowering presence, the Spirit’s transformative work, and our own regenerated response to God.

That is: Our union with Christ drives us to obey. Our will, emotions, and desires are meshed with His. The Spirit who indwells us empowers us to obey. We have been clothed with the risen Christ, so we cannot understand ourselves apart from Him. With such cosmic artillery, it’s impossible that a genuine Christ follower—clothed with the righteousness of Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit—will not render obedience to God. We say with Paul, “Not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).

This is why I love to emphasize the scandal and radicality of grace, and yet I can also say that our obedience is vital for our Christian existence. Our obedience doesn’t determine God’s love toward us, any more than grapes force the sun to pour out its heat upon the vine. It’s the sun’s heat (God’s love), the rich soil (Jesus’s death and resurrection), and the abundant water (the Spirit) that produce grapes. Or winepresswe can switch it around a bit. The Vinedresser enjoys the vine. He cares for it. Nurtures it. Thinks about it often. He prunes it. And apart from the Vinedresser, there would be no grapes. But what about that bad year? There was a drought. A fire. A big rig lost control on the nearby highway and careened into the vineyard. And there’s no fruit that year. Maybe a grape here and there, but they’re small, shriveled—hardly noticeable. It’s been a bad year, and the Vinedresser is working extra hard to make next year’s crop more fruitful. Maybe some extra pruning will do the trick. The Vinedresser is grieved, and He’s certainly not thrilled over the shriveled grapes. But He still loves being a Vinedresser, and He’s still passionate about His vine. The number of grapes—some years there are none—doesn’t determine, sustain, or elevate the Vinedresser’s enjoyment of making wine.