Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Saints or Sinners? How Does God See Us Now That We are Christians? "

To address this question, I appeal to Romans 4:17 where it says:

“– the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”

One will say, “I’m just a sinner, saved by grace.” Another will react with, “No, you are a saint who sometimes sins.” Which is true of us? Relax you two! You are both a sinner and a saint!

One fears the other won’t confess their sins. But how can one be perfect this side of heaven? For those claiming sainthood, they are concerned that those calling themselves “sinners” are missing all God has for them, and may be sending an “it’s okay to sin message.” But my friends, who call themselves saints, freely admit that they sometimes fail. And friends, who say they are sinners, are fully aware that they are utterly forgiven in Christ. Why this tension concerning who we really are in Christ?

The problem of course is that we don’t see as God sees. This has more to do with the size of our brains, than it has with the quality of our faith. The two sides of this coin won’t stop flipping till we arrive in Heaven.

Scripture tells us we are to believe we are saints, while confessing our sins freely. This is no contradiction though, because God is the one most involved, and most invested with changing us from sinners to saints. He is able to do and see what we are not.

Scripture tells us to admit that we have sinned.

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”
1 John 1:8-10

But God has set things in motion, whereby we must totally trust Him for our salvation and righteousness. We are not to say that we are without sin. Yet we are also to recognize that in Christ, we have been forgiven and cleansed of all our sins and so are declared righteous by God. We confess our sins while God declares us righteous. And for this, we praise and thank Him!

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
Titus 3:4-7

So does God see us as saints or sinners? He sees people born of His Holy Spirit, justified by His grace. He sees believers as saints but we need to be careful how we express it to others. When I look at my life in comparison with what I’m created and now recreated to be in Christ, I see that I fall short of what God wants of me. (Romans 3:23). Yet even when I blow it, there is this undying hope within me, because of what God has done through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit points me to Christ’s completed work on the cross. I’m forgiven of all my sins, and declared by God to be righteous. So while I confess my sin, God declares me a saint. I won’t declare myself a saint without telling folk about what God has done to make me into one.

A saint is “one who has been set apart for God.” That’s what sanctification is. Saints are sanctified people. Being sanctified means “to be made holy.” When people think of “holiness,” they often mistakenly equate it with “the absence of sin.” Holiness is not just the absence of sin. It is an attribute of God which He has offered to man, if we would let Him sanctify us. Sanctification began when we received the Holy Spirit, upon declaring our faith in Christ. God sees His sanctification work already complete because He is faithful. That is, He does what He promises. When Jesus shouted on the cross, “It is finished!” My sanctification was signed and sealed in Heaven. Yours was too, if you are in Christ.

Unlike God, we live in time; not yet seeing His finished work in us. Still, even when we falter, our spirits perceive and have hope of this completion. (1 Corinthians 2:9) So we have our sainthood for sure, but at present we have it by faith rather than sight.

Rejoice in the promise that God will complete His work; making us into saints! The first part of sanctification is cleansing us from unrighteousness. But it continues with the renewing of our minds and conforming us into the image of His Son Jesus:

“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 1:6

On that day of Christ Jesus, we’ll see this work complete. Even then we will never say that it was by our own righteousness that we were made fit for heaven. It was God’s doing on our behalf.

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul lists examples of sins. (See the list yourself.) He says that those who are sinners will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Then he says of these believers:

“And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.”
1 Corinthians 6:11

Were those who came to Christ suddenly temptation free? I doubt that after they came to Christ that none of them ever stumbled in their walk with God. But something truly did happen to them; something that we share. While once such sinners, as mentioned in the list, now they were in Christ, and they were changed. These sinners became saints.

When I was born again, something really amazing happened. I stopped wanting to sin. I wasn’t very good at being obedient, for sure. But oh how I now wanted to be! God’s Spirit changed my heart! I probably didn’t yet look much different on the outside. But I had faith now. And God sees that! Whenever I've sinned since then, I've hated my sin. I run right into God’s presence, and bear my soul to Him.

At such times, The Father has never lightened-up His standard for me. I am expected to be changed by Him! Since my rebirth, if I sin, I have Christ. Jesus didn’t die for nothing. He is on our side; our advocate when we’ve failed God:

“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”
1 John 2:1

If you sin, run to Jesus. He is your advocate with Holy God. God sees forgiven people. Jesus was the one who was the sacrifice for our sins. The very next verse here states:

“He (Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
1 John 2:2

In Jesus we have “atonement” with God! Atonement was not even in the English language before the Bible was translated. For what Jesus had done for us, there was no English word. So the word “At-One-Ment” was formed. Though once separated from God, thanks to what Jesus chose to suffer on that cross, our separated-from-God lives can now be at one with Him again. Atonement.

In talking about how Jesus found him, Paul writes:

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
1 Timothy 1:15

Apparently we are sinners who have been made saints, thanks to the blood of Jesus, shed for us? Still uncomfortable with that? I again appeal to Romans 4:17:

“As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He (Abraham) is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”

This verse is declaring that like Abraham, we follow God by faith. Like Abraham, God declares us righteous by our faith in the finished work of Christ. We may not feel “righteous” yet. But God alone can “call things that are not, as though they were.” I think we’ll be pretty safe in our testifying, whether we say, “I’m a sinner saved by grace,” or if we say, “I’m a saint, thanks to Jesus.” So long as we make clear how this righteousness has come to us: Crediting Jesus!

Monday, September 17, 2007

"What is Midlife Crisis?"

Joe was asking about midlife crisis, and what that means for Christians. “What’s the deal with Mid-life crisis?” Do Christians go through it? Is it mentioned in the Bible?

“Midlife Crisis” isn’t just a middle-aged man wearing a toupee, elevator shoes, and driving a Gremlin. And it isn’t just for men anymore. America isn’t visited in the Bible. I hesitate to throw our cultural baggage onto ancient saints, as if they went through Midlife Crisis. They were of a different culture, with their own difficulties.

Midlife Crisis comes in our mid to late 30s, (though health crisis or loss of a parent may bring it on earlier). American false gods are different than in other places. “Midlife Crisis” comes to Americans because our false gods have started to show their true ineptitude, and their promises’ emptiness, around the time our bodies pass what we have defined as “our prime.” To the extent we Christians have bought into this culture, we will suffer a Midlife Crisis. And sadly, many at this time in their life, make wrong choices, causing themselves and their loved ones pain.

Tell the folk you see going through it, that like puberty, Midlife Crisis is only a phase. It will pass. Maybe this second “puberty” happens because we take in so many lies, during our first puberty: Lies about who we are, what defines our worth, and what constitutes success.

Midlife Crisis is like a great shifting of earth. If you’re going through it, please hang in there! And please don’t make any life-changing decisions at this time! Wait for God’s peace again and then you’ll see clearly if and how to make life adjustments.

Jesus promised that storms would come to all, and that it’s important to have our lives built upon Him. He is to be our foundation. But to the extent that our lives are built on our shifting earthly cultures, we will feel it. Jesus said:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Matthew 7:24-27

Young people, to avoid having a Midlife Crisis, be doers and not just hearers of God’s word! One false American god is “Youth.” Hollywood tells us “youth” alone is beautiful. Why is being over 30 and “not looking your age,” considered a compliment? That is a cultural thing. Most cultures of the world, honor age; they look to elders for wisdom, and guidance, and value them. Each age has its beauty. These places don’t have our Midlife Crisis. But here, when “youth” leaves our faces, we panic as if God has abandoned us. He hasn’t. “Youth” has. Crisis!

China was great for my midlife crisis! Suddenly, I was seen as rather grotesque with my pointy nose and pale skin. On days I actually felt dapper, I could count on someone to say, “You are less evolved than we. Just look at the hair on your arms!” Sometimes people were afraid to sit next to me. This was great to get Midlife Crisis over with quickly.

One day our friend Abdulwali came over with a favor. His mother had a shop in the bazaar and had received a shipment of facial cream from America, to sell. The instructions were in English, and they needed translating. As I started translating, I must have looked very serious. I wasn’t used to using Uighur words for, “sex appeal,” “unsightly wrinkles,” or “baby’s bottom.” The shaking of the sofa woke me from my concentration. Abdulwali and his brother were holding their stomachs from laughter. “Tom, you are so funny!”

I explained that I wasn’t joking, pointing seriously to the jar, and that just got them knee slapping. I had to laugh too. This jar was insane. Later, holding a jar of this weird stuff, they asked, “Why would my grandmother want to look like she was 16?” (More laughter). “Why would a married woman with grown kids and a husband, want to run around with “more sex appeal?” (Frowns, at the implications). “Are not wrinkles like white hair; proof that one has lived long and well?” “Youth” was a foreign god there; not understood.

“Career Success” is another of our false gods. Around midlife, younger folk may start passing you up the proverbial ladder. You may not even want to do another job. But there is that felt need, to be promoted. The prodigy you once were is now being passed over. It feels like failure. Why? I left grad school and went to China where I was functionally illiterate and spoke like a 7 year old. My sense of self worth suffered. Why?

Though a believer since age 22, I have had lots of input from American culture, with its many false gods. Thankfully, our God silences lies. Midlife Crisis, for the Christian, means that liberation is near!

If you are in pain over your lost “youthfulness,” questionable “sex-appeal,” or, if your aging ankle is stuck in a rung of the corporate ladder; and if it hurts, I offer you Jesus. He is Truth. God has so infinitely better for us! Midlife Crisis offers us freedom from false gods who we’ve visited when we should have known that America is not really our home. They’ve called out their lies to us for years. Now is the time to be done with them!

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Galatians 5:1

These are not our gods. God wants His children free. Is He not the great “Refiner’s Fire?” God promised to send Jesus to us. He would save us! And He would change us!

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness,”
Malachi 3:1-3

What a promise! We in Christ are the priests (Levites) of God! God’s Holy Spirit, through Jesus’ blood, cleanses us completely, so that we can better serve God. We need to be shaken, refined, and set free. Consider those in Hebrews chapter 11, so commended for their faith: They were not citizens of any earthly kingdom; but had given themselves wholly to citizenship in Heaven; adopting Heaven’s culture. These were willing to be different. We are expected, as citizens of Heaven, to join them now. We are to cast off every false god, and serve only the Lord.

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
Hebrews 11:13-16

God considers those who are born anew, to be citizens of Zion, His land. I encourage you to get to Psalm 87, and sit with God, and let it sink in. You aren’t from here.

There is a great picture of an event that awaits believers when we get to Heaven. Let’s always consider what we are building upon:

“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
1 Corinthians 3:11-15

Thank God for midlife crisis! Our work will pass through the flames on “that Day.” When my turn comes, to see my works tested, I don’t want the Angels to have to hand out asbestos and dark glasses, announcing, “Stand back for this one, saints! Wayyyyy back!!!”

Not just midlife, but we in Christ should always be welcoming the shaking off of anything not built on Christ. Thank God for this time of shaking! Let us see whatever is not built on Jesus fall off, so that we can recommence building. But now building only upon the Solid Rock. Amen!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

"What If I Don’t Like My Spiritual Gift?

Bill thinks God has given him the gift of prophecy. And just as he was about to ask God for confirmation, a sister in his fellowship group asked him to pray for her, adding, “I could really use a word from the Lord right now.” Pressure!!! Bill asks, “Is there any way I can ask God to give me another gift? This is really a bit much for me!”

Poor Bill! No, you cannot take it back or exchange it for another. It isn’t like that maroon sweater vest Aunt Mavis sent you. You know, the one that makes you look so dumpy? When God gives gifts, they are for keeps.

“For God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable.”
Romans 11:29

While the above verse is talking about mercy extended to mankind, it is interesting that the Apostle Paul includes “gifts” in there with “His call.” We are given spiritual gifts, the moment that we receive Christ. And we can’t just trade our gift, “for what’s inside the box that Carol Merrill is now showing to us.” We may however, choose to either embrace the gift that God has given, or struggle under the weight of it. The sooner we embrace the gifts we’ve been given, the sooner we will enter that adventure which God has intended for us to enjoy with Him.

When Jesus rose again, he began sending the Holy Spirit to believers. With the receiving of the Holy Spirit, we also receive spiritual gifts. Paul writes, quoting Psalm 68:18:

“This is why it says:
“When He ascended on high,
He led captives in His train
And gave gifts to men.”

Ephesians 4:8

Our lives change when we embrace these gifts. The spiritual gifts God gives indicate how we will live out His calling for us. It helps to think of our gifts, not as gifts to ourselves, but as gifts that God is giving to the church worldwide. These gifts are to the body of believers. We just receive and get to use them. They are His gifts, entrusted to each of us, for all. They are:

“…to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Ephesians 4:12,13

Our Father expects us to use these gifts to bless all His children. And once we embrace the gifts, they no longer are a burden to us, but a wonderful tool that we begin learning to use, to build up the body of Christ. We start by learning what our gifts are.

Here are where you can find the gifts mentioned: Romans 12, verses 6 to 8, include: prophecy, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, and showing mercy. Gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12, verses 7 to 11, include: the message of wisdom, the message of knowledge, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discernment between spirits, speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues. And from Ephesians 4, verses 11 to 13, we find these gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers.

I’ll use Bill’s example of prophecy, because it is often misunderstood. But that said, to the carnal mind, all the gifts are misunderstood. God's ways are not man's ways. Let God’s Spirit and His word, guide you to understand how to use your gifts. Once embraced, God brings people and materials and ministries and experiences into our lives, which help explain our gifts. I don't know anyone who started out, really understanding their gifts.

Your spiritual gift may not apparently suit your personality. Unlike Aunt Mavis’ sweater vest, if the gift God gives you doesn’t fit, that means He is going to get you into the shape you need to be in to fit your gift. You don't take it back to get a dumpier one to fit you. He begins fitting you for service, when you embrace the gift. Like you do with Aunt Mavis, just smile and say, "I love it!" And embrace it. It's yours! Try it on! God wants to see it on you!

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like to confront people. When I first thought God would use me prophetically, I kind of panicked. I imagined God might have me stand up in the middle of a church service, tear my robes (hey, it’s MY imagination!), with one hand gripping my hair, and the other pointing my shaking finger at the pulpit, yell "Blasssssphemmmy!!!" (Thankfully, God has never led me to do that.) I was picturing in my mind, the Prophet Elijah and the 400 false prophets of Baal. Lovingly, God started showing me other scripture that helped a lot. Verses like:

“But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.”
1 Corinthians 14:3

Prophecy is to “strengthen, encourage and comfort” those in the church. I didn’t have to blast God’s children. They aren’t prophets of Baal leading the church astray. They are dearly loved children of God. I had a lot to learn!

So many benefits came in with this gift as well! Once I embraced the gift, God gently led me through issues I didn’t even realize I had; for instance the fear of man's opinion of me, and getting rid of unhealthy people pleasing ways. I can now testify that I haven’t pleased anyone in years! (Praise the Lord! Glory! Yessssss!!!)

He brought creativity into my life too. Learning to speak what I know God is saying requires creativity I don’t naturally have. And I received through embracing this gift, much more love for God’s children. What father doesn’t want his children encouraged and built up in truth? Prophecy today really is to strengthen, to build up, and to comfort God’s children. And God had to get my heart in line on this, before I could use this gift.

A prophetic word (like any gift) can come out in frustrated tones, if the person speaking them (or using them) has not embraced their gift. God not only wants His words spoken (performed) clearly, but with His tone of voice. He doesn’t get frustrated. He’s God after all. How much Bill might miss out on, if he does not embraced God’s gift! But he will.

It’s wonderful to see God move powerfully, despite our weakness! Evangelists who couldn’t sell water in a desert: mercy people who are themselves suffering affliction, givers who themselves live sacrificially, etc. Each gift needs to be learned. When we are weak, He is strong. When we use our gifts, the less naturally gifted we feel, the more glory God will get when we’ve obeyed. That is when you get to see God do His thing. His gift doesn’t seem to fit? It will. He’ll make you fit it. Can’t take it back for one that fits how you are now. That is how the world works, not God. He loves us too much not to reshape us to fit His plans for us.

I have a friend David, who has been a faithful Christian for years. Recently, he has discovered his spiritual gift of leadership. God will expect him to lead "diligently." (Romans 12:8) David is probably the opposite of anything bossy. His personality is gentle. Furthermore he saw no money for gaining the education or training for church leadership. But he prayed and obeyed. He asked the Lord to confirm to him, whether this was indeed the Spirit's guiding. Though he wasn’t eager to lead, David said "yes Lord," in his heart, to whatever God was going to say his gifts were.

God did confirm that David’s gift was leadership! And then God started opening doors! A church started offering courses through a seminary. One degree was in "church leadership." The church invited David to take the course for free through a scholarship! Studying God's word David found examples of unlikely leaders, made leaders by God. If God wants David for leadership, God will make him a leader. So now he is excited about where God is going to take him with this gift and calling. David has embraced a gift that he was at first tentative to receive.

“But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
2 Corinthians 12:9

Bill may not feel prophetic. But he trusts God to know what's best; and that God loves him. He’ll embrace the gift. Then the fears, the hesitations, the insecurities, will all turn around as God works through him in his weakness. And when that happens, Bill will marvel. He’ll soon, like Paul, boast in his own weakness. We all come to that concerning our true spiritual gifts. Because that’s when we see God’s strength working even through us.

If the gift doesn't fit, wear it!

Here are good verses to meditate on:

“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 1:27-31