Tag Archives: Legalism

Palm Sunday Thoughts

Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. It is the day on which the people of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus into the city riding on a donkey. They waved palm branches and laid their coats on the ground beneath His feet. “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” they cried out. They believed He was the promised Messiah.

But not everyone believed or was happy about Jesus’ arrival.

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
Luke 19:39-40 (NIV).

Palm Sunday is celebratory, but it doesn’t take long for the sentiment of the Pharisees to take hold among a larger group of people. In a mere five days the crowd will call for Jesus’ crucifixion following his joke of a trial before the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pontius Pilate. The majority of the people will turn against Him, one of His closest twelve disciples will betray Him, and the other eleven disciples will desert and disown Him.

But coming back to our Palm Sunday celebration, one has to wonder why the people were so excited about Jesus’ arrival to the city. I believe it was in large part because they had heard many things about Him that fulfilled the prophecies of the promised Messiah, only a few of which included that:

  • He was born in Bethlehem:
    “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2 (NIV).
  • He was born of a virgin:
    “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14 (NIV).
  • He had healed many, giving hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind:
    “In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.” Isaiah 29:18 (NIV).
  • He entered the city riding on a donkey:
    “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9 (NIV).

There was no Facebook, Twitter, or even Internet blogs during Biblical times, but news still spread about this man who could calm the storm, feed the hungry, and heal the sick and lame. The crowds that He drew all throughout His earthly ministry clearly indicate that news spread quite well if it was news worth hearing.

News had spread of this amazing prophet who was able to best even the Pharisees and Sadducees in a religious debate, who spent time with riff-raff and sinners, and who claimed to be able even to forgive sins without an animal sacrifice. He offered the common people freedom from servitude and burden of living under the thumb of the religious rulers of the day.

We celebrate Palm Sunday today because He makes the same offer even today. He offers freedom from the burden of legalism and forgiveness of our sins. And the truly amazing thing is that even if, in the midst of the confusion and agony of Holy Week to come, we desert or deny Him, He will redeem us.

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No Need for a Counteroffer

I am working on a project for work that has plunged me back into my favorite topic when I was in law school – contracts. I love the whole idea of an offer and an acceptance between two people that forms a contract, and all the ways that simple formula can go awry and make determining what the contract is a little messy. One problem arises when the person hearing the offer adds something to it or changes it somehow when attempting to accept. In this case, there is no valid contract because what the second person has done is not accept the offer, but made a counteroffer. There is no binding contract until the original offeror accepts the counteroffer.

As I worked on this project, it occurred to me that the legal rules of offer and acceptance for the formation of a contract apply just as much to our salvation as they do to contracts between humans.

At Calvary, God made an offer of salvation to all people. “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” John 19:30 (NIV). The offer was made to pay for the sins of all mankind, for the sins of each individual human being on earth. Jesus had already told us what our part of the bargain was when He said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” John 5:24 (NIV). All that is required to accept the offer is to believe. For God’s part, He also promises He will send His Holy Spirit to seal us and guide us when we believe.

It’s a wonderful offer, and I always marvel that there are those who don’t accept it outright. My hope is that such people simply don’t understand the depth and simplicity of the offer, and in time they will know and accept.

But in thinking about the law of contracts I realized there is, in some ways, a more dangerous response to the offer than the outright rejection. That is the intended acceptance that is in fact a counteroffer.

Instead of just accepting God’s offer as is, we add to it or change it just a little. We say, “I believe, and I’ll do these good deeds to pay for my salvation.” Or we say, “I believe, and I’ll attend this correct denomination of the faith every Sunday.” Or maybe, “I believe, and know I must read only this one translation of the Bible.” Still others say, “I believe, but I haven’t followed all the rules and need to accept the punishment for my transgressions.”

But none of these responses is an acceptance; they are all counteroffers. The danger of the counteroffer is that we might think we’ve accepted the offer and have created a binding contract between us and God. But in reality there is no binding contract at all if we add anything to the original offer, unless, of course, God accepts our counteroffer.

And I suppose He could, and maybe He does, accept all the counteroffers that at least start with “I believe.” But why take that chance when the original offer is so perfect, so full of grace and love? It’s so simple – just accept that all we need to do is believe in Jesus and we will have eternal life now and for eternity, and we get the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit as a bonus. Why, oh why, do we so often insist on making an unnecessary counteroffer?

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Thanks, John, for the Assurance

My favorite of all the apostles is John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” I love his Gospel, the three epistles that he wrote, and Revelation. One of our scripture readings in church on Sunday was from 1 John 4:7-21.

There are a couple of things I love about John’s writings:

  1. He reminds his readers that he was an eye witness to Jesus life, death, and resurrection.
  2. He clearly sets out the evidence for Jesus’ divinity.
  3. He focuses, particularly in the epistles, on the love of God.
  4. He reveals the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.
  5. He provides believers with an assurance of salvation.

It is this last point that I want to write about today. Early in the history of the Christian faith, deceivers had come into the church who taught that one had to achieve sinless perfection to be saved. John wrote his first epistle to combat this heresy. The same type of heresy has crept into many legalistic denominations even today. By outwardly following the rules, such people claim to be without sin. But as John writes:

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 is not in us. 1 John 1:8-10 (NIV).

John here provides assurance that the fact that the believer sometimes sins does not negate their salvation, because Jesus is faithful and forgives our sin. One of the definitions of assurance on Dictionary.com is “full confidence; freedom from doubt; certainty.” Throughout this epistle, John provides further assurance that those who trust in Jesus can be assured of their salvation even though they are not sinless and perfect. The word “know” appears 42 times in this short epistle because John wants to make sure believers know that God loves them and that they can rely on His promise of salvation. In each of the chapters of the epistle, John includes his assurance:

I am writing to you, dear children,
   because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
I am writing to you, fathers,
   because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
   because you have overcome the evil one.
1 John 2:12-13 (NIV).

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. 1 John 3:21-24 (NIV).

If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. 1 John 4:15-16 (NIV).

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 1 John 5:13-14 (NIV).

None of us is perfect and completely sinless. If we were, we would not need a savior. But we do need Him, and we thrive best knowing that He is faithful in His promise of salvation for those who believe.

Now don’t get me wrong. John does not advocate living a life in which we sin willy nilly simply because we know we can be forgiven. Those who truly believe in Jesus, and trust in Him for salvation, will desire to keep God’s commands. His Spirit living in our hearts will help us to overcome the temptations of the world and to love as He has commanded.

You may be struggling today with worries that you are not good enough, or that God will give up on you and you will lose your salvation. But remember – God is faithful in His promises and He has promised eternal life to all who believe in Jesus and allow His love to live in them. He has not hidden the truth from us, but has made Himself known through His Son and the witness of the apostles so that we can be assured of our place in His Kingdom.

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Harvesting Carefully

Yesterday I wrote about the harvest and related the harvest Jesus spoke of in Matthew 9 to harvesting peas, green beans, and pears. As I was writing, another idea came to me about harvesting berries, but it didn’t really fit with the theme of yesterday’s post, so I decided to save it for today.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we love our raspberries, blackberries, Marion berries, Logan berries, and strawberries. But harvesting berries is difficult work. You have to be very careful not to squish or bruise them and they must be picked one at a time. You can’t drive a combine down a row of berries and spin the vines around in a barrel to pop the berries off the vines like you do peas. If you tried that, you would have berry mush and juice. Even one or two squished berries in a pint box can cause the rest to mold in a very short time and the whole pint can be completely wasted. Once you bring berries home from the market, you have to eat them, freeze them, or do something with them pretty quickly. But you don’t want to wash them until you are ready to use them because the extra moisture on them can also lead to molding.

In the same way, people who God has planned for His Harvest must be handled with great care. If we are not careful with our words to our fellow Christians, they might be bruised or squished like a berry. Sometimes, even if a person becomes part of the harvest and trusts in Christ, if they are bruised or squished along the way they could cause those around them to be ruined and a whole group could be ultimately lost as they walk away from a faith they once found.

The bruising I am talking about is legalism. Sometimes a Christian will say to a fellow Christian, “If you do this or that, you will burn in hell. Got hates that behavior.” But this isn’t really a true statement. Jesus said,

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” John 3:17-18.

It is not our sin that condemns us to hell. It is failing or refusing to believe in the One who died to pay for our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. And yet often people, including other Christians, are told repeatedly that they will be condemned for certain behavior.

I have known people who have turned their back on the Church and on God because of hearing such lies. And can you blame them? If Christ didn’t pay for their sin, then what good is He to them? If they have to be perfect on their own before they can enter into the Kingdom of God, they might as well give up because Christianity is no different from any other religion or no religion at all. The Apostle John wrote:

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. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2.

And Paul wrote to the Galatian church:

“If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Galatians 2:17-21.

Of course God does not want us to sin, because generally speaking sin is not good for us and does not bring us joy and contentment, which is found only in Christ. But if we tell others that they will be condemned because of a some sin or another that they have committed after they have accepted Christ and trusted in His atoning sacrifice, we may ruin their faith and cause them to deny Christ. Instead, we should handle them with care, gently encouraging them to rely on the cleansing of the Holy Spirit to overcome the temptation they are struggling with today. We should never “set aside the grace of God” and exchange it for the law under which none will be found righteous. We must encourage and uphold our fellow Christians when they stumble, so that they can get back up and set their sights back on Jesus.

Have you been bruised and squished by fellow Christians who have burdened you with the yoke of legalism? Look to Jesus and know that He loves you and died to pay for your sins. Cry out to the Holy Spirit for understanding of the depth of His love and grace, so that you will not lose your faith in the One and Only Son of God. Seek His wisdom and His guidance so that you might grow more like Him each day. And never forget that you are a work in progress and “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6.

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The Perfect Balance of Truth and Love

Six weeks ago today we planted grass seed in our front yard. My husband worked hard to prepare the soil and roll it flat. We scattered the seed and covered it with peat moss to protect it. The forecast called for partly sunny and partly rainy weather, perfect for growing grass seed.

But then the rains came, breaking records for May and June in the Portland area. There were days when it simply poured, and we saw very little sun. Some of the grass seed was washed into my driveway. After three weeks of rain, the weather report came that we were going to have seven days of no rain, so we scattered some additional seed in the rivulets of bare dirt hoping it would take root and fill in those spots. But then it rained and hailed for the next three days and all of that extra seed was washed into my driveway.

We now have grass growing in most of the front yard, and if you view it as you come up the hill towards our house it looks  pretty good. But as you stand on the front porch it is clear that although there is grass growing, it is a bit sparse and there are a lot of unsprouted seeds throughout the yard. It is green but not thick enough to look like it would withstand a person walking across the lawn.

Looking at the “lawn” this morning got me thinking about the seeds of faith that have been sown in families and in churches over the years. There are certainly a number that have sprouted and grown, but there are just as many that seem to have drowned and failed to sprout, or have been washed away. In the case of my lawn, it was too much water and not enough sun that caused many seeds to not sprout. If I had planted in August and failed to water the lawn, I suspect a similar result would have occurred, but for a different reason. The seeds would have dried up and failed to sprout.

What is it that causes seeds of faith to not sprout and grow?

Often seeds of faith are drowned by legalism, drowned in the idea that we must earn our own salvation. The heavy burden of following every rule of the law leads to hopelessness and fear of never being good enough. The truth of what is sin in the eyes of God overshadows the grace of the gospel of Christ’s redeeming love; there is no balance between Truth and Love and faith is drowned.

Other times seeds of faith are dried up by tolerance disguised as love. There is no truth, which comes to us from the Holy Spirit, to provide the understanding of the gospel. The gospel of grace and mercy that are necessary for faith to grow are deemed unnecessary as all behavior and ideas are accepted as normal and acceptable. There is no balance between Love and Truth and faith is dried up.

For seeds of faith to grow we must know the Truth of our sinfulness and accept the Love of Christ that redeems us. The two must be balanced in the hearts of men and women for faith to sprout. Then those sprouts of faith must be nourished with the Word of God for them to flourish and grow strong. The apostle Paul stated the necessary balance perfectly in his letters to the churches in Rome and Ephesus:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3:21-24.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8-9.

In our society today, and even in some of our churches, the two necessary ingredients for faith to grow have become out of balance. Legalism and unfettered Grace abound. Jesus become unnecessary to many because they either believe they can earn their own salvation or that they are not in need of a savior. To these lost ones, Jesus answers, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.

What is the means by which we can obtain a balance of Truth and Love so that our faith might sprout and grow? By being grounded in the Word of God, the whole Word.

There is a great song by the O.C. Supertones called Grounded. It’s kind of a hip hop song, which is not usually my favorite type of music. But I love the boldness of the lyrics. The chorus is great, and the final verse is my favorite:

Grounded by O.C. Supertones

Chorus

Hoo, Hah.
How will you stand
if you don’t understand?

Hoo, Hah.
Fight like a man, scriptures in hand.

Verse

Kids in universities,
drowning in an ocean
of apostate philosophy.
We need apologetic instruction,
mental reconstruction.
Ignorance reduction,
to halt the mass abduction.
Evangelical mind
has been scandalized.
Wisdom and truth
have been vandalized,
by the unevangelized.
No truth in a world
that’s randomized.
Expose the lies
no matter how they’re disguised.

That we must or can earn our own salvation, or that we don’t need saving, are lies. Those who teach these doctrines in the name of Christianity are guilty of apostasy. They have abandoned the core tenants of the Christian faith. This made me realize how important it is to teach the balance of Truth and Love, the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ, to my own son and to share it with my family and friends. Those of us in whom the seeds of faith of sprouted and grown must provide both water and sunlight to help the seeds of faith grow in those whom God puts in our path.

Perhaps if we can keep showering Truth and Love in perfect balance through the Word of God on the seeds of faith around us, the “lawn” of believers that make up the Church will grow full and strong.

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