Grace Goes Beyond Sin

41ph0homtblReturn to primal innocence is not enough, for we were made for eternal rest and peace on the far side of probation. But that peace is only found by those whose sin has been dealt with by the sacrifice of the beloved Son. Grace is not defined wholly by sin; grace sees sin and meets it effectively, but it also raises still further, well beyond neutrality or innocence to glory and true holiness.— Michael Allen, Sanctification, 167.
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Justice and Mercy Are Not Competitors

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[T]he mercy of God satisfies and does not dilute, much less abrogate, the holiness of God. “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps 85:10). The Psalmist elaborates, “Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky” (Ps 85:11). Admittedly, the Psalm began with words of forgiveness, of covering sin, and of withdrawing wrath (Ps 85:2-3); yet it concludes by noting that “Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way” (Ps 85:13). God’s salvation and restoration do not in any way mitigate his triune justice; quite the opposite, redemption displays righteousness, which treads the path of divine kindness and makes a way for mercy’s footsteps.

— Michael Allen

Life with God

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Thus, the gospel is fundamentally about life with God, and by extension, we might say that the Scriptures are fundamentally about life with God. The Scriptures flow from the context of life with God, and their very content is the need for, problem with, and provision for life with God in our neighborhood—the territory wherein treason has been committed against the one true God by the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. The gospel takes in a range of themes along the way: forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body, reconciliation of a fractured humanity, and the like. The fundamental promise, however, is that God’s dwelling is now and will be forevermore with his children.

Excellence

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Excellence is the process–note that word processof becoming better than I once was…Excelling is simply–and radically–the process of improving over yesterday or, in the apostle Paul’s words, ‘pressing on’ (Philippians 3:14, NIV). (108)

I’m working my way through Harold Best’s Music Through the Eyes of Faith, and the best chapter thus far has been the one that is the least (directly) about music. The chapter “Personal Excellence” speaks to far more than musicians and their trade (and such was Best’s intention).

The above quote is the definition Best gives for excellence. It is as much a definition of walking in faith as anything else, especially given the reference to Paul’s pressing on toward the goal of Philippians 3.

Peter calls us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). To measure growth requires one to compare, but so often we compare our growth against the current state of someone else. We want to love Jesus as much as so-and-so; we want to have the happy marriage of so-and-so; we want to be the godly parents that so-and-so are; we want to know the Bible as well as Pastor does.

What’s interesting is that Peter’s exhortation to grow comes in the context of saying even though Paul writes inspired Scripture, he still doesn’t understand it all. Peter’s command is less a directive of a commanding officer than an invitation to join him in sounding the depths of the glorious good news that has come in Jesus. Neither Peter nor Paul are the standard against which we measure ourselves; we measure growth by how much different we are than we were.

Best goes on in the chapter to reinforce that very idea:

Excellence is not being better than somebody else, nor is it even being like him, her, or them. … We cannot become better than we once were with other people’s gifts…And when we confuse steady and stewardly work with workaholism, we end in a dilemma that has put a stranglehold on far too many sincere young Christians, all in the name of some vague idea of Christian perfection (111).

Paul’s statement at the end of 2 Corinthians 3 is another reminder of this same truth:

We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18 HCSB).

We look, Paul says, in a mirror. Paul does not say we look through binoculars, creepily spying on our brothers and neighbors. We look in a mirror. We see ourselves. What do we see there? The glory of Jesus. What is the measure of our growth? Our transformation into the image of Jesus–from glory to glory. Every saint who looks in God’s mirror sees glory; in fact, every saint should also expect more. Who is doing this incredible work? “This is from the Lord who is the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is uniquely working in you to transform you from glory to glory. He is not transforming you from yourself to somebody else; He’s making you into the Jesus-Reflector God has declared you will be.

Your growth as a Christian is measured by becoming better than you once were. Your growth is not measured by comparing yourself to anyone else but yourself. Are you in the process–remember Best’s emphasis on the word in his definition–of becoming better than you once were?

Are you a better spouse than you were six months ago? Five years ago?

Are you a better parent than you were six months ago? Five years ago?

Do you know more of the Word now than you did six months ago? Five years ago?

Do you forgive faster than you used to?

Do you fight and struggle against things that never occurred to you to fight and struggle against before?

Do you win a few more battles in your fighting than you used to?

Do you see more of your sinfulness and need for Jesus now than you used to?

If the answer to any of these questions (and countless others, too) is yes–even a tentative yes–then you are excelling. And in all the yeses, tentative, qualified, or resounding,

We can all take comfort in this simple fact: While we move from good to better to best; while we endeavor to become better than we were; while we excel, Christ perfects our excelling and presents it to the Father. This is grace, this is atonement, this is powerful, this is wonderfully comforting, and this is the way it is (111, emphasis added).

Rest in the fact that this is the way it is.

Harold M. Best. Music Through the Eyes of Faith.

 

Uzzah Redux

In Zechariah 13, the promises of future grace on Judah are coming fast and furious. The chapter begins with a fountain being opened that washes away sin and impurity–the two hindrances to approaching God that must be dealt with by sacrifice and cleansing.

Then the names of the idols will be entirely removed from the land–even the memory of them will be gone. The false prophets and the unclean spirit marshaling them will be evicted.

Then, to emphasize how complete a purification this will be, a scenario is posed where someone dares to prophesy falsely in this time:

If a man still prophesies, his father and his mother who bore him will say to him: You cannot remain alive because you have spoken falsely in the name of Yahweh. When he prophesies, his father and his mother who bore him will pierce him through” (Zechariah 13:3 HCSB).

The holiness of God’s people will be so pervasive that a man’s parents will execute him for taking Yahweh’s name in vain.

This makes me think of two possibly related passages: the death of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6) and Jesus’ teaching about not bringing peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34-38).

In 2 Samuel, the people were treating the Ark of the Covenant as a lucky charm; they thought that Yahweh would never allow those who carried His Ark to be defeated. They marched themselves out to fight against the Philistines. And were whipped six ways from Sunday, including having the Ark captured and brought into Philistine territory.

Remember, God gave very detailed commands about how the Ark was to be moved and who was allowed to carry it. Nobody touched it at all. Only the Levites were allowed to touch the poles that carried it; nobody touched it. It was the visible representation of the throne of God Himself. It was to remain within the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (and later the temple). The Philistines began breaking out in horribly disgusting and uncomfortable diseases as long as the Ark remained with them, so they did the only sensible thing they could do: they sent it back to Israel.

Once the Israelites reclaimed the Ark, they began to transport it back to its proper place. The only problem with their plan was that they were completely disregarding those commands God had given. Instead of being carried properly, David and his crew took a brand-new cart and let oxen pull the cart. The cart hits a pothole, and the Ark starts to tip over and fall off the cart. Uzzah reaches out and steadies the Ark and is immediately struck dead by Yahweh.

Not only were they being disobedient to God’s instructions, Uzzah’s actions–regardless of his conscious intent–betrayed a belief that God needed help. 2 Samuel 5 tells the story of the Ark being placed next to the statute of the Philistine god Dagon. Every morning, the Philistines found their statue lying prone before the Ark. One morning, Dagon’s head had fallen off. The God who could do that didn’t need Uzzah’s or David’s or anybody else’s help. He’s too holy for our filthy hands to steady Him, if He ever needed steadying in the first place.

The holiness of God lashed out in righteous, justified judgment against Uzzah. What we see in Zechariah 13 is that same holiness, but this time in the lives of the people themselves. Those washed in the sin-cleaning fountain (13:1) would be so zealous for the reputation and honor of Yahweh that they would stand against their own children if necessary. Which sounds a lot like Matthew 10, in which Jesus says that He comes to bring a sword that divides even within families.

The vision of Zechariah 13 portrays for us the passionate holiness of God active in the hearts of His people. They are no longer ruddy with sin, but washed white as snow (Isaiah 1:18) in the fountain He opened. They are completely transformed from self-absorbed self-lovers to glory-absorbed God-lovers. Instead of sinfully piercing the Innocent One (12:10), they’re now shown as righteously piercing the deserving guilty.

It would not surprise me in the least if King Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10 was not explicitly alluding to Zechariah 13, which His original hearers would have picked up on. It would have been a scandalous claim, because in so doing He would be identifying Himself as the struck Shepherd and Associate of Yahweh Himself (13:7-9).

The Holy Spirit Himself lives within us to progressively create in us the very passionate holiness of Zechariah 13. Let us take every opportunity He gives us to, as John Newton’s hymn says, “love and sing and wonder” on the way.