I remarked to Bev just last week that I felt like I was walking and living out God’s grace much more when I knew little about the Bible or theology, when I had experienced a transformation of a hardened heart. A few years ago I just wanted to walk in love and grace, to have God’s light shine through me. And now I find myself worrying or concerning myself about someone else’s theology or beliefs.
Just yesterday I had finished my message for this morning and was feeling quite proud of its theological precision, and biblical references. As I always do I asked Bev to sit with me as I read it out aloud. Feeling quite puffed up by my new, and potentially dangerous, theological understanding I turned around and saw Bev with the same glazed look over her eyes that I get when she is trying to explain to me how a computer works.
“I love you, she said, but this is not you. Whom are you writing for?” She was very gentle. And I was properly convicted. I prepared this message to look at three possible ways that we may see God, each other and our world.Fear-based paradigmReward-based paradigm
I confess that I wrote my message from a fear-based perspective. My own self-doubt about who I am. My own perspective of trying to prove to my parents and others who doubted me that I am intelligent. Trying to make this more biblical so I couldn’t be accused of “watering down the gospel.” Or “appealing to the world instead of properly convicting people of their sin.” Accusations I have read and heard from people as I journey into my understanding of grace, and yet see all around me the miracles in peoples hearts and lives happen as a result of God’s amazing grace.
So there I was yesterday morning, as Ted already had all of the power point ready, and all of my scripture on slides… and I prayed. God, what do you want me to say?
I am so fearful of judgment by people who have been Christians for far longer than I have who can quote whole chapters of scripture, who use the “Word” as a weapon. Who “want meat, not milk.” That I wrote my message to appease them, as opposed to just sharing from my heart and brokenness what I believe God may want us to know. God has a sense of humor, and it’s a real good thing I took typing in high school.
I was even worried about showing scenes from this movie in case it might offend someone. The movie Saved
came out a few years ago amidst controversy and anger from many Christians. I remember watching it with Brodie and I told him that I had reservations about it and veto power over whether or not we turn it off. Because I love satire and parody, I actually really liked this movie. As we are exploring our understanding of God and faith and Christ and life. As we reflect on why we might love Jesus but hate the church. See if these scenes speak anything to your heart. I’m going to show this to you without fear.
It centers on the life of kids in a suburban Christian School, Some of these have either a fear or reward-based understanding of faith. Hilary Faye is the primary character played by Mandy Moore. And she is “on fire” for Jesus. She has a special elite club only for those who are like her and on fire. She is out to “save the heathens” and makes one rebellious Jewish girl her specific project. But one of her friends in the “in club” who love Jesus ends up pregnant. Her faith is shattered as she tries to understand Jesus in this clearly frightening time. The scene we are going to look at here first shows how confused Mary is when she finds she is pregnant. Because of her fear paradigm she now believes that maybe Jesus does not love her. So we find her exploring other “spiritual” alternatives. The principal of the school then enlists her friends; headed by Hilary Faye, to “gently" bring her back to her faith.
Scene 10 on DVD “Jesus loves you.” She says after traumatizing a confused friend.
Hilary Faye is coming from both a fear based and reward based understanding of God. She is fearful that her friend is “ backsliding” and going to follow Satan, she is fearful that if she doesn’t do anything that she is not doing God’s will…. And then she feels that if she “saves” her by performing an exorcism that she will receive her rewards. Her theology or paradigm is evident in the fruit of her life… I know about Love she screams angrily at her friend as she throws a bible at her. Her words say one thing but the fruit says something entirely different.
The movie goes on to show how Hilary Faye becomes so angry with the people who are resisting her efforts to “save” them that she ends up plotting to get them expelled by writing graffiti on the school walls with anti-Christian slogans and planting the spray paint in their lockers. In typical high school movie fashion the climax comes on prom night when Hilary is exposed as the one who spray-painted the school. In this scene we see Hilary’s anger at not receiving her reward for “saving the heathens”
Scene 19 on DVD. Hilary Faye and others were “on fire" for Jesus with the wrong paradigm. How many of you know a Hilary Faye? How many of us have been a Hilary Faye?
But, some will say, a good dose of fear will keep people in line. How else can we stop people from sinning? Look, there are many passages about fearing the Lord.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10
But what we are not told by those who like to quote these scriptures is that the meaning of the word fear in the original Hebrew and Greek has several interpretations. And the one definition that many scholars prefer seems to fit with our loving father in heaven
Fear = Respect, reverence,
Let’s read it again.
Respect and reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
That sounds right to me. Makes a lot of sense doesn’t it?
There will be those that argue that no; indeed, fear means what we know it to mean, to be terrified and frightful. We know that our paradigms will produce our actions and behaviors. The beliefs that we hold in our hearts will come forth in what the Bible calls our fruit. This is the external evidence of what is taking place inside of us. Many Christians tell stories of the turmoil in their hearts when they have been asked to reconcile a fear based theology with an understanding of the love of Christ.
Fear based understanding produces fearful and anxious Christians. The fruit of fear is fear. We become fearful of what we don’t understand, we become fearful of what we can’t see, we become fearful of what God really thinks about us, we become fearful of “non-Christians.” Fear could naturally move us towards works in order to please God and others. Works righteousness means that we can gain our right standing with God by doing more, praying more, serving more, preaching more, judging more and “saving” more heathens! Maybe controlling or manipulating others…
I recently had a conversation with a young youth pastor. First let me describe him to you. He was a very nervous looking guy, with pent up energy, a bit of a wild eyed look to him. He looked a little like Kramer off of Seinfeld. If I hadn’t known any better I would have suspected that he might have been high on cocaine or something, a look that I was more than familiar with as an undercover narcotics cop. He was, as we would say today, a little sketchy looking.
I began to ask him about his ministry in Northern Alberta and he exuberantly told me that his youth were “on fire” for the Lord. They were traveling to all of the native reserves in their area and telling them about Jesus, he said. “Because we’re in the end times now you know, we don’t have much time left.” Normally I would have politely changed the subject but I had just finished a course at seminary on Revelation and so I thought I would engage in a little banter.
“What makes you think that we are in the end times right now” I asked politely. “I, I, I, don’t really know.” He replied. “I’m a bit of a conspiracy theorist.” He confessed. “I look at what is happening in the Middle East with Hamas, and things that are going on around the world.” He stated excitedly. “And you know I think I know who the anti-Christ may be.” “Oh really, who is that?” I asked. “Prince Harry, think about it, he has a rebellious spirit, he is an heir to the throne from one of the most powerful countries in history, He could be king one day.”
I gave him that smile that we use when we are trying to be gracious but thinking cuckoo!I John
puts fear in its proper perspective. “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the Day of Judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4: 17 – 18
Perfect love drives out fear. And in one of the smallest sentences in the Bible that can be used to define whom God is we read, God is love. And we know that God is perfect, therefore if God is love and God is perfect then his perfect love is what drives out fear. But wait a minute; we’re told to fear God. Why would we fear perfect love? No wonder we get confused about God’s nature. This does not mean that we throw out Scripture that encourages us to have awe and reverence for our mighty God. It does mean that we should put this into its proper context and perspective. If we truly experience God’s love, through Christ, we need no longer fear. We walk confidently in His grace. We have even more reverence and awe at his ability to transform our lives.
Let’s now look at the second possible paradigm.Reward-based paradigm
I once heard a message on the story of David and Goliath. The person giving the message was not a pastor but rather a very wealthy and high up person within a multi level marketing business. Now I am not saying that these businesses are bad. But the mixing of biblical teaching with the purpose of encouraging others to see faith as an avenue to wealth is in my view very dangerous theology and the opposite of what Jesus taught. Now let’s look back at a story we may remember, the classic story of David and Goliath.
“Now the Israelites had been saying, “ o you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his father’s family from taxes in Israel.”
David asked the men standing near him, "what will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?"
They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him “this is what will be done for the man who kills him.” 1 Samuel 17:18
This speaker used this story to show that David took on the challenge of killing Goliath because he was motivated by the reward that would await him. The speaker went on to say that the motivation of reward and wealth was in fact honoring to God because as we see, David won, and if it wasn’t honoring then God would not have been with him in his victory.
Can you see the danger in this theology? If I am motivated by my own desire for wealth and comfort and luxury, and then attach my faith as a means to get there then really we are replacing our God, who desires humility and goodness and love in this world, with our own god of self.
Through this speaker’s paradigm of reward based theology he took the story of David and Goliath and drew an inference that indeed David was motivated by reward. But he doesn’t go on to read the whole story. While the story speaks of this reward being floated out, David in fact brings it back to understanding what God would have him do and tells us later what his motive truly is.
Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give all of you into our hands.” 1 Samuel 17: 45-47
David does not say to Goliath or anyone else “well look I don’t really know if I should do this, although boy it would sure be nice to be rich and have the kings daughter. So maybe it’s worth the risk. I’ll do this for God sure, but really I know the reward and so Goliath you don’t have a chance.” No, David acknowledges that he is there in the name of the Lord to do the Lord’s will. Why? So that “the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.”
The location of scripture to fit our viewpoint is called proof-texting. This was a really sad example of proof-texting to justify self-centered motives.
But Jesus knew this is part of our human nature. This idea of reward is nothing new. One day two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John pulled him aside privately to make a request. They asked, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory (Mark 10:37
) They assumed that Jesus would soon initiate a kingdom and they were lobbying, if not for crowns at least for thrones. They didn’t seem to be embarrassed at their less than noble motives for following Jesus. Now the other disciples once they heard of James and John’s request were more jealous than angry. No one questioned the propriety of seeking rewards.
So Jesus challenged his disciples. He said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whomever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10: 42 - 45
Jesus is correcting his followers. He is saying, look, your motive for hanging with me and following me is wrong. You want your glory and your reward. But I need humble servants who can bring my message of hope into a hurting world. Don’t be motivated by your own desires for status, prestige, and wealth. This is the wrong motivation. The wrong paradigm.
A reward-based paradigm appeals to self-interest and down plays self-denial.
A reward based understanding of faith serves to fuel the very sin that Jesus came to take away, my own pride and self-centeredness. C. S. Lewis writes about the great sin in Mere Christianity.
“There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves.”
“The vice I am talking about is pride or self conceit…pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” C.S. Lewis
Lewis goes on to write that pride is essentially competitive. If we are reward oriented in our theology and paradigm then we are generally placing ourselves in competition. Because we can only know if we are rewarded when we compare ourselves to someone else. If we all received the same amount of money, or beauty, or comfort yet we have been working so hard to serve the Lord so that we may get reward then we say why bother. We cannot love others the way God would have us do when we are in competition with them. We cannot love when we are seeking reward. Because the only way we can measure our reward is by comparing our stuff with others.
So I won’t. But if you feel like some homework read the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20
. This is about reward based thinking producing competitive and envious people. It illustrates the message of grace.
God distributes his gifts of grace not because they are earned, but because he is gracious. In the kingdom of God, the driving force is not merit and ability but grace.Grace-based paradigm
Fear and reward based theology is nothing new.
In the 1500’s Martin Luther challenged a fear and reward based theology that had manifested into the corruption and control of the Roman Catholic Church. He began the whole reformation, our heritage as a protestant church, protesting against fear and reward. He discovered in his own life and others, God’s grace. If you are interested in his story I encourage you to rent the movie Luther.
Luther, as no one before him in more than a thousand years, sensed the importance of the miracle of divine forgiveness. Our right standing before God was merely a matter of credence and trust. This was the only requirement. For by faith and only faith are we made right with God.
One writer says this about his own journey of faith.
“Although heaven and hell are often presented as different ends on a spectrum, they share a common assumption. For those who understand all of life as preparation for heaven or hell, a loving relationship with God is secondary, if not irrelevant. God’s grace becomes the ticket to heaven rather than the means of transformation. Such cynical thinking suggests there is nothing inherently attractive in a relationship with God, that without the carrot or the stick, no one would bother with God. Yet what ultimately attracted me to God and the Church wasn’t fear or greed. It was meeting people who lived their lives selflessly, who no longer asked, “What’s in it for me?” They spoke of God not as an abstraction, but as one who loved them so fully they were freed to love extravagantly.”
When we have been transformed by God’s love, forgiveness, and grace we cannot help but become gracious to others. Some of us have certainly come from places that have desperately required God’s grace.
In my darkest days of despair, brokenness and confusion and chaos I found myself staring at the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels. Crying out to a God that I had long forgotten from my youth. And by His grace alone my life has been transformed. I had a choice… J.D. or J.C. By God’s grace…How about you?
Why is it we see more grace at an A.A. meeting than we do at many churches? Because people don’t have the mask on, their pride has been stripped away; they humbly read one of the signs on their meeting room
“ But for God’s grace go I…”
How many times have we humbled ourselves enough to see someone who is different and looks like they have been through life’s wringer, and truthfully say… but for God’s grace go I….
I wonder sometimes if we have never experienced God’s transforming grace can we fully comprehend it.
Phillip Yancey is one of the most insightful writers on the issue of God’s grace. He says this,
"Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more . . . And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less" Philip Yancey What’s so Amazing about Grace?
We can only make room for his grace when we choose to let go of fear and self centered motivations.
It's hard to be full of grace when you're full of fear. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr
We cannot earn a right relationship with God; we cannot do things, and follow laws, and dress right, act right, say the right things, or act spiritual to gain right standing. Don’t drink, don’t swear, and don’t watch the Simpson’s…Will not change our hearts and minds. Can I back that up with scripture? Well, Martin Luther certainly did.
But now righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. his 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
How we see our relationship with God and with each other will drive our motives. Even the smallest things that we do.
How do we know which viewpoint is coloring our perspective on faith?
God’s spirit is not angry, judging, condemning, haughty, and prideful. God’s spirit is not controlling, manipulating, or vengeful. It does not harbor grudges. It is not God’s spirit that causes us to hurt others. One of the reviews that I read for the movie Saved by a Christian journalist that was in response to the anger of many Christians is that the movie was not a parody or making fun of Christianity. Rather it was a parody of our own humanity. It is not God’s spirit that causes some of us to want to be the sin police. How do we know this? Is this “bible preaching” Well, here is what I read,
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22
A few years back I met a lady at a social function. She found out that I was a Christian and asked me what church I went to. I told her and she said to me with a bit of a knot in her face “you know some of those grace based churches are from Satan” I thought I was in a scene from the Waterboy and I was Bobby Boucher.Grace is God’s unmerited favor. We cannot earn it; we can only humbly receive it.
It’s grace that brings us into communion with God
It’s grace that allows us to see others as God sees them
It’s grace that allows us to humbly come before God when we are tempted to judge others and say, but for God’s grace go I, and as a church community, but for God’s grace go we.
It is grace that brings hope amidst suffering, crisis of faith and the dark nights of the soul.
It’s grace that prompted Bev to tell me yesterday, this isn’t you Bob. Speak from your heart.
It’s grace that will bring us freedom
And it’s grace that will teach us how to love.
But this amazing grace came at a tremendous cost. As we celebrate the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper let us take some time to reflect on that cost. Let us see Jesus on the cross, beaten, scorned, spit on, ridiculed. Grace is not cheap, and grace is not license. Grace penetrates our hearts to the extent that we are free to live and love and laugh and dance and sing in union with God and each other. But it came at such a cost as Christ hung on that cross for our sake to free us spiritually from our own self-centeredness or despair
As we eat the bread in memory of his broken body
As we drink the wine in memory of his blood
We realize that together we are now a part of his body that our belief in him has caused for a supernatural and mystical relationship that transforms us. But what a cost of that amazing grace. by Bob Stenhouse