Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Promise of Grace

Without grace, even the New Testament becomes the Law.” -Pastor Tracy Harris

Everyone knows about the ten commandments – these make up the foundation of what is called “The Law.” If you're not sure what they are, let's take a quick look:

Following these commandments bring righteousness and blessing on someone's life – disobeying them will bring condemnation and judgment. But we have already established this fact; no one can keep these commands. Ten simple rules to follow, and we've all failed miserably.

At least we're living in the New Testament, right? On this side of Calvary, God's grace has freely forgiven us for breaking His original commandments. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace...” (Ephesians 1:7). Now that we've been freely forgiven of all sin, there's no more commands for us to follow, right?

Actually, would you care to guess how many commands are in the New Testament? Ten? Twenty? One hundred? Would you believe that there are one thousand and fifty new commands for the Christian to follow? If we were lost with only ten to keep track of, we must be completely hopeless with more than a thousand! There's no way we could even remember all of those – let alone keep them! Doesn't this put a believer in a worse place than they were before?

That would certainly be true if we had to keep these commands by ourselves. But we don't have to do this alone; we've been given something that makes it all possible – grace! Let's look again at Hebrews 12:28, “...let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably...” We can only serve God by grace, not by trying.

When we try to obey God, we're depending on our flesh to do what's right. This is what Paul calls “the weakness of the Law in Romans 8:3. The reason the trying to keep the law never works is because your depending on your weak flesh to follow God's commands. But if you read the end of Romans 7, you'll discover that the flesh will never be able to follow God's commands.

This is why we need grace, to empower us to serve God and obey his commands. Look at what Paul says about grace in 2 Corinthians 12:9 My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Where the flesh is weak, God's grace brings power. The result of this empowering grace can be seen in Psalm 119:32 “I will run the course of Your commands, for You shall enlarge my heart.

When you try to obey God, you'll fail. But when you step into the spirit and have faith in God, you'll find sin losing it's grip on you! Let's take another look at Romans 8, this time at verses 2-9:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit...”

The only way to keep the righteous requirements of the law is to stay in the Spirit – by fully trusting in God's grace.

And what is it we trust in? Put your hope completely in this one truth: God has never given a command without also giving the power to keep it! Let's take a quick tour through scripture and illustrate this point:

When God commanded Moses to move forward – He gave the power to split the sea.
When God commanded Joshua to capture the Promise Land – He gave the power for victory.
When Jesus commanded the man with the withered hand to stretch it out – He gave the power to be healed.
When Jesus called Peter out on the sea – He gave the power to walk on the water.

Now look at Lazarus. If there was any man that was weak in the flesh, it was this one! He had been dead for four days – and Jesus commanded him to come out of the grave! Lazarus didn't have the strength to get up...he was dead! But what happened? The command carried the power to obey it! This is what grace does for us, it empowers us to obey the commands of God – any command.

This is the power of grace – Grace turns any command in scripture into the power to obey! As you read the words of scripture, remember this; any command you read is actually a promise to empower you to obey. Put your faith in God, and He will enlarge your heart to obey every word He says...This is the Promise of Grace!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Freedom of Grace

Galatians 3:3 “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect in the flesh?

The book of Galatians was written to a church that was being misled. Paul started this church himself. He taught them the Gospel, brought them into the faith, and raised up leadership in their congregation. These were people who understood salvation by grace through faith – they were genuinely born-again.

But after Paul left, new teachers (false teachers) came in that began to teach different doctrines – things that sounded good and even made sense. They declared that Paul's gospel of grace was a good start – but now that the Galatians were a part of God's covenant people, they had to conform to the law. In other words, they were being taught, “God did save you by grace, through faith. But now that you're saved, He expects you to get to work and keep His laws.” This makes sense, right? Shouldn't someone obey God's commands after they've been saved?

These Galatian brothers and sisters truly did have a heart for God. So when they heard that they needed to do more, they dug in and tried their hardest to make God happy. Unfortunately, there were disastrous consequences to their attempted obedience. Let's read Galatians 5, verses 19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murder, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

Remember who Paul was talking to? This wasn't a wild group of sinners – it was a church that was doing their best, trying to obey God's commands! But no matter how hard they tried, these works of the flesh became more and more common. The false teachers used these manifestations of the flesh to prove their point: "See what you're doing? There needs to be some law and order here! Here's the rules - follow them!"

And right here is where we see truth that has plagued mankind since Eden: The more you try to obey, the more disobedience creeps in. Paul explains this paradox further in Romans 7 – a well-known passage to anyone who has struggled with sin.

Romans 7:15-21 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I want to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I don't want to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for the want is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I want to do, I do not do; but the evil I don't want to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I don't want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.

Can anyone relate to this struggle? How often have you been trapped in a sin – knowing that's it's wrong, hating it with every ounce of your spirit, and yet constantly going back to it? Does it ever seem like the harder you try to keep away from sin, the quicker you fall right back into it? If so, then I have amazing news for you – God never intended to leave you in this struggle!

You see, what the false teachers were telling the Galatian church – and what many believers are misled to think today – is that God saved them by grace, forgave their sin, and then said “Go try again. Good luck!” Too many Christians believe that Grace is about forgiveness and being let off the hook when you sin. It's like they believe that God knows that you're only human and there's no way for you to really be free from sin - so He gives grace to cover you when you inevitably mess up. But that is not what grace is about!

Colossians 2:6 tells us “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him...” Friend, how did you receive Jesus? It was by grace, through faith! So how are you supposed to walk in Him? By grace through faith! You weren't meant to be saved by grace, and then perfected by trying to do what's right. You see, God's grace isn't only the forgiveness of sins – it's the freedom from sin! Let me show you what I mean:

Hebrews 12:28 “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.

Do you see? When you have faith in the grace of God, it will empower you to serve Him in an acceptable way! Grace isn't about what you can get away with - grace is the power to do what you can't do on your own! This is living by faith. This is walking in the spirit! And when you walk in the spirit (that is, when you put your faith in the grace of God, knowing that grace will empower you to do what's right), you WILL NOT fulfill the lusts of the flesh!

Galatians 5:16 “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.

There is a way out of the sin that you're trapped in. There is a way to live a righteous life like you've always wanted. And that way isn't by trying to do what's right. When you try to obey God, you'll fail - we've proven that time and time again. No matter how hard you work at keeping God's commands, the result will always be the works of the flesh. But when you place your faith in God's empowering, glorious, amazing grace – it will break every trace of sin's power off of your life!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Of Daughters and Wolves

Acts 20:29 "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock."

In the symbolism of the Scriptures, wolves are worldly people that attack God's sheep. Many of them are worldly people attack the church from the outside. These are the ones that Jesus refers to when He told His disciples "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves." This kind of wolf is all around us, and they are blatantly obvious in their attacks on us.

Other wolves, though, are more subtle in their approach. Matthew 7:15 tells us that some wolves like to dress up in sheep clothes and infiltrate our flocks. These are the ones that Paul warns us about in Acts 20:29; they are wolves among us.

I go into great detail explaining these wolves in another post. I wanted to write this post to expose one particular breed of wolf - one that every parent and spiritual leader should be aware of. To get our first glimpse of this creature, let's look at Genesis 49.

Jacob was nearing the end of his life. Before he died, he gathered his twelve sons around him and prophesied over them about things to come. As he spoke about each young man, he pinpointed events in their future and the future of the tribes that would come from them. For example, Jacob declared that "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes..." This was a prophecy concerning the kings that would come from his son Judah, eventually leading to THE King Himself!

However, when he turned his attention to Benjamin, Jacob's words were less majestic...less promising. Look at what Genesis 49:27 says, "Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil." Yikes! Jacob was prophesying of a time when Benjamin would lie in wait for his prey like a wolf. Do we see such a time in Scripture?

Fast forward to the last chapter of the book of Judges.

Judges chapter 21 is the ending of a tragic story; a story that results in the death of all but 500 men from the entire tribe of Benjamin! Because of their wickedness, all other men, women and children were wiped out. To make matters worse, the rest of Israel angrily vowed to keep their daughters from marrying anyone in the tribe of Benjamin. This vow would've made those five hundred men the last of the entire tribe. When they died out, so would one-twelfth of the nation of Israel.

The other Israelites realized extinction wasn't the best option. In spite of the tribe of Benjamin's sin - it was decided that they should still survive. However, there was no way around the vow they made. No Israelite father was allowed to let their daughter marry an Benjamite - and for a Benjamite to get a wife that wasn't an Israelite was strictly forbidden by God. What could they do? Finally, someone came up with a shrewd way around this oath.

Here was the plan: There was going to be a holy festival at the Tabernacle of God in Shiloh. One of the festivities was a dance procession for all the young, unmarried ladies, where they would leave the city in a large dance of celebration. The elders of Israel told the Benjamites, "Go, lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; and just when the daughters of Shiloh come out to perform their dances, then come out from the vineyards, and every man catch a wife for himself from the daughters of Shiloh; then go to the land of Benjamin." If any father objected to this kidnapping, the elders would calm them down. This way the tribe of Benjamin would survive, even though no father willingly gave their daughters away in marriage.

Notice three words from what the elders said: "lie in wait". These Benjamites hid in the celebration at God's house, waiting to pounce on the innocent girls there. Tell me, what does this sound like to you? A "wolf in sheep's clothing" perhaps

Among the different types of spiritual wolves, I believe there is one in particular that follow the Benjamite pattern. These men (yes, this is almost always a man who preys on a young woman) work to infiltrate the house of God. They learn the right words. They play the part of  godly men. But inwardly, they're panting after our girls. These guys are smooth when they speak to their prey, leading them away and isolating them. And when the time is right they pounce - either taking what they want from them and leaving, or leading these girls away from the flock to follow after themselves.

The end result is destruction. Some girls are hurt when they give part of themselves to someone who seemed to be a righteous man, but who simply ended up using them. Other girls are pulled out of the church and end up following these men into a life that's far less than what God wanted for them.

So how do we stop these spiritual predators? Is there a way to prevent, rather than repair, the damage these wolves cause?

First, to these young sheep: Get to know the voice of your Shepherd. In John 10:4-5, Jesus tells us this,
"And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers." You see, once a sheep learns to recognize the voice of her Shepherd, she won't be so vulnerable to the sweet, silky-smooth voices of these strangers. So, it's crucial for you to learn what Jesus sounds like when He speaks to you. Get in the Word! Spend time in prayer. Get close to Him and follow Him only.

Second, to the shepherds: Guard your flock! Listen to the words of Paul to the Ephesian elders.
Acts 20:28-31 "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch... "

Paul laid the responsibility of guarding the flock on the leaders. Sheep don't fight off wolves...shepherds do. Let me tell you one thing I've learned about these wolves: In every case I've seen, the leaders in the girl's life (either her pastor, her father, or both) usually suspect something's wrong ahead of time. Every time, the leaders are left scratching their head wondering, "I knew something was wrong! Why didn't I do something?" Leaders, pay attention to the voice of the Holy Spirit! Don't wait to clean up the pieces - take action before the attack!

When we read Paul's words of warning, we can see a few things we can do to protect our sheep:
#1 - Take heed. In other words, pay attention to your flock. Keep your spiritual sense of discernment sharp and listen to what the Chief Shepherd is telling you.
#2 - Feed your sheep. Jeremiah 3:15 tells us that God appoints shepherds to feed the sheep with knowledge and understanding. Acts 20:30 tells us that the wolf's main weapon is twisted words. Put these together and you can see that a shepherd is responsible to feed their sheep the Truth - and that Truth will counteract any lies wolves may tell.
#3 - Watch. This term carries more meaning than simply "pay attention". This term implies "watching to defend." According to John 10:11-13, a good shepherd is one that is willing to confront a wolf to protect the flock if necessary. Hirelings (that is, those who care for the flock without ever really caring about them)won't bother to confront the wolf, being afraid for his own "reputation" and well-being. But listen to me, leader - this can't be us! When we (as fathers or as pastors) see a man leading one of our sheep away, separating her from the flock and isolating her, then we must confront him!

Jesus trusted us with part of His flock. Let's not take this responsibility lightly. Now that this breed of spiritual predator has been exposed, don't close your eyes to the threat!