The excerpt below was taken from a lesson entitled, "Maturing Our Churches -- Lord, Teach Us," on Thursday, July 7, 2016, at Reach2016 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. You can listen to the audio recording of this lesson here. (Please note that a small subscription fee to DTV is required to access the lesson.)
I come to you from a perspective chiefly as an evangelist, as a church leader. We all teach, whether we’re leading a Bible talk or putting on an MTA (Ministry Training Academy) or similar event. We all do teach in some way or another. We want to see the church grow up into the full stature of Christ. This is massive; we have an amazing opportunity to take the church from an adolescent phase, in some cases, to a bullet-proof, rock-solid maturity, where we can stand, and make a stand, to really change the world.
In Colossians 1:3 (ESV), Paul writes, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel…”
Every time we hear the word, “gospel,” we should be blown away that we get to have the gospel! It’s the most counterintuitive construct of religion that has ever existed under heaven, and we’ve got it! There is no other approach to man and God that is an approach of a covenant of grace, and that’s the good news, that’s the gospel: that we’re saved not by works, we’re saved by love. Because God loved us, and intervened and disrupted and interrupted, before anything that we could have done that was wondrous or Spirit-filled. We, in our depravity, were saved by love. And not only that: he arranged time and space so that our eyes could be flung open and we could even see how it is that he saved us by love, and could ultimately be brought to a place where we surrender over completely to that, and live forever in that covenant.
We’re pretty good as a movement – as a matter of fact, I would say that we are phenomenal as a movement – at being able to help people appreciate how big grace is, as they come to the waters of baptism. Nobody can touch it. We, unlike any other great pursuit of Christianity right now [in my opinion], we really do understand, as the woman in Luke 7 understood: she who has been forgiven little loves little, but she or he who has been forgiven much loves much. And when we are forgiven, my goodness, we get it.
I was having a discussion with a group of very mature brothers the other morning and we were in Hebrews 9, where there is this beautiful passage that talks about how in the Old Covenant, the blood of bulls and heifers could not cleanse the conscience, but it did actually cleanse from the outward manifestation of sin. In the New Covenant, we are cleansed not only from unintentional sin, but from sins that lead to death. That’s the difference in Hebrews 9 there: not only does it cleanse our debt, but also cleanses us from sins that lead to death. By the way, in the Old Covenant, do you know what the recourse was, if you committed an intentional sin? Death. Or goodbye from community.
But we actually have the mechanism through grace, by which not only is our debt forgiven, but our consciences are clean. Why? It says, so that we may serve the living God. So we grow up in that kind of maturity, we head into baptism with that kind of maturity, realizing we have been saved by love. And boy have we been saved. How much it is that we have been saved by!
I asked the brothers at this breakfast, “Do you have any conscious issues that hold you back from serving God from sins that you committed prior to your baptism?” And one after another with an honest take, they said, I do not. I said, "that’s terrific. How about sins that you committed after baptism?" and everyone said, “Oh I do. Over the top. I even wonder if I should even be at this breakfast right now having a discussion with you guys.”
So something is happening with our maturity, where we, my goodness, we come out of the gate great! – Our “K-through-Eight” education in the Kingdom of God, we got it going on! But when you get to the "secondary-school-level," then something happens. The wheels fall off the cart. We have not been able to appreciate the power of grace after baptism.
If we’re going to be brought from “Immature” to “I Mature,” one of the things that’s helpful for us to realize, is the idea that Christ died for our sins (Romans 4:25) but he was raised -- for what? He was raised for my justification.
There’s two really amazing things that happen (among many others) when you are regenerated in Christ. When you are baptized, not only are your sins credited to Christ, but his righteousness is then credited to you. Then through the Holy Spirit you are also given the ability to attain to that righteousness, and not just to claim it as a legal standard, but actually to grow into and live out that righteousness. You come out of that baptism not just-as-if-you'd-never-sinned, but you come out of that baptism, really regarded in the heavenly realms, just-as-if-you'd healed the leper, fed the 4000, fed the 5000, raised the widow of Nain’s son, so she could have life and family again. Just-as-if -you'd brought Lazarus back; just-as-if-you'd lifted the woman bent over for all of those years; just-as-if-you'd…
Jesus came as a man and lived an entire life of street-cred righteousness, not for no reason – he was even baptized – why? To fulfill all righteousness. Why? Because he was bundling all of that up and giving it to you. As you rise up. But most of us, we walk out of our baptism thinking: “Yes! I’m a blank slate! I’m a vacuum! Yes! I have nothing on my record whatsoever!”
But you do, you have the righteous record of Jesus and the Spirit that will only accelerate that in your life. But when we don’t recognize the additional portion of grace, [we appreciate] only the subtraction portion of grace, it’s very easy to remain rather immature. So what we’ve been trying to do is, in this past year, really help in everything we do. Whether it’s a quiet time or a discipleship time, a devotional, or in some public discourse of preaching and teaching, to bring home the gospel of grace.
Going on here in Colossians 1:6 (ESV), it says, "This gospel “which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.” Now I know we say this all the time, “Oh I don’t get grace, in the church we don’t get grace.” I really think we can nail this thing. I think that we are in such a great position as a body of Christ to be able to take grace and to see it turbo-charged, not only for the benefit of our maturity but also the spread of the good news as well. Why? Because other churches, or families of churches, that may go after grace, they’ve never actually gotten obedience. We already have that down: “What does the Bible say? I’m getting after it, hallelujah, amen, I love it, it’s clear, I’m getting it, and I’m fired up about it, And yeah, on some bad days I may feel dutiful; but if it’s obedience, I’m getting after it.”
Do you realize how rare that is? But that is our culture! --Yes! the blessings of obedience! --Yes, the clarity of what we need to do with the word of God! Now, what if we poured gasoline on that, and created a fire with the grace of God burning within us?
Here’s, sadly, what I’ve neglected in all of my Biblical exegesis teaching, expository preaching, teaching. I have completely neglected the redemptive or the grace context of the Bible. What do I mean by that? Do we not believe that the whole Bible is orchestrated together, just right, by God? Do we not realize that all of it is fitting together and all of it tells a vital story? And that story is: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and they live happily ever after. There is an epic narrative that is the story of God and you. Creation, fall, redemption, restoration. Fall, redemption, restoration – restoration, of course, being the consummation of all things.
Here is what I have neglected as I have tried to teach the Bible in probably the last 15 to 18 years: as I teach context, context, context, over and over again, as I teach, how to read the Bible, context, context, context, and my context is historical: what was the historical setting, who was writing to whom, where did they live, what was going on, was there idolatry, was there pagan religion, what was the situation that was there? Learn it, bring it to life, make it memorable, let the movie of your mind play as you hear what it was that they heard, as they listened to Jesus at his feet, or as they received the letter from Paul in their fellowship – what must that have been like? I felt like I was pretty good at that. I knew where to go and to get the resources and really bring it to life.
And then the literary context as well: why this, why here, how does it flow in the bigger story, what is going on, how does it connect, to see some of the really cool connections within the flow of that book or argument or psalm, or song, how does this help us to understand the greater whole? But that’s where it stopped. And for anyone who would then go and walk back and try to look at the redemptive context, I was critical of those people. I was thinking they were freewheeling it a little bit too much. Just get in the text, stay in the text, trust the text, and that’ll do the trick.
But that was my own definition of what it meant to “be in the text, stay in the text.” To “be in the text and stay in the text” is to look at the full text. It’s to look at the whole story, the full story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and ultimately they live happily ever after.
There may be things in the Old Testament that may not look at all like grace or like “boy gets girl back” or “they live happily every after.” You may not see any of that there. But when you watch a romantic comedy and you watch it a couple of times, and then you see the bone-headed move by that guy, and how he pocket-dialed the girl – all it is showing is the fallen nature of that relationship. Knowing what’s going to happen later, it helps you appreciate, despite that bone-headed move, that there’s still going to be the white picket fence, the happily ever after. Despite that call that he made and left on her answering machine. That’s what the Bible is for us, it’s not just a one-act play. We need to look at it in its totality. If we take our eyes off that, we’re going to stop marveling. We’ll end up looking at the little story, and you know what we’ll have? All we’ll have is: “You need to be careful that you don’t dial somebody in the middle of the night.” And then the lesson becomes a moralizing lesson. “You need to put up better boundaries, you need to fix your phone, You need to be more diligent about not calling in the middle of the night.” But that’s not the gospel of grace. And if that’s all that we preach – “Don’t call in the middle of the night, be like Joseph, be like David,” wihout looking at the full context, then all we’re doing is what’s called 'moralizing.' We’re putting together a moral tale, and what we’re saying, is, if you try harder, if you do better, then I’m going to approve of you better, and so is Jesus. “Ding!”
And subtly, when we [all] do it, then we do it in our quiet times as well, and in our discipleship times. I think, here’s a great scripture. Now try harder. Here’s another great scripture, now try harder. If that’s what it’s going to be, we’re going to be forever young. And that’s not a good thing. We’re going to be the Peter Pan church of Christ. But I believe, as we can start to be able to appreciate the fullness of the redemptive context, we can move from a gospel of grit: “if I do good then I’ll be worthy” – to a gospel of grace: “I am worthy, therefore I do good.”
Even the way Paul does it: if we’re looking at Ephesians 1, 2, and 3, there is not a single command in all those chapters. No imperatives, almost all indicatives, and it’s all amazing. You’re chosen, you’re predestined, you’re Spirit-filled, you’re marked, you are adopted, you are redeemed, you’re his sons, you’re the ones he loves, you are his workmanship, you are his masterpiece. Chapter 4 is the pivot point -- therefore live a life worthy of the calling by which you’ve been called. “Live a life worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called” is in the context of, “look at who you are, you have been redeemed, this is who you are in Christ.” Identity drives duty, duty doesn’t develop identity; and with that identity given to us, the more we can recognize this, we think, oh my goodness, this is who I am, what wouldn’t I do for Jesus? Oh my goodness, I want to run through a wall for Jesus! Knowing who I am right now – come on! Bring on the commands, bring on the clarity, I can’t wait to see it, I want go after it and live the life that I was always meant to live, knowing what it is that I have been made in Christ! And when that fire begins to burn, and we preach the gospel to ourselves, over and over and over again, every quiet time, every discipleship time, not leaving out the greater redemptive context in all that we do…[we will become mature].
One last thing I want to mention here: grace is an interesting concept, because you may think that there is much of Christendom that is better than you are at preaching grace. But let me level it. I don’t really think they are. And it’s not because I am chauvanistic in this, but because I really have tried to study this. And basically -- the best that most of Christendom has done, to try to make grace more of a motivator, is to make grace a credit card with a higher limit. I think you can go ahead and test that – whatever sermon, book, whatever you want to look at.
It is kind of a simplistic way of putting it, what it comes down to. In the first century, the people that would have heard “charis,” grace, they would have understood it as something very different [than what most of Christendom understands today]. As a matter of fact, “charis” – it’s like, today we say, "money makes the world go around." In the first century you would probably say, “charis” makes the world go around. Because “charis”... is not only the free gift, given from a benefactor to a beneficiary, but it’s more.
This is the way it would have been understood through the ears of someone living in Corinth or Athens or Berea or whereever. It would not only be the gift given, but when you used the word grace, it would have been applied to the welling up in your heart of gratitude. That was also called “charis.” The reception of it and the gratitude was grace.
But that’s not where it ended, there was another aspect of grace that was immediately part of the equation and could not be ripped away: it was the immediate overwhelming desire, even beautiful obligation, to give in return. How can I give back in return, someway, somehow? How is it that can I do that? It creates a tighter and tighter bond of intimacy that gets ever deeper, and strengthens the relationship between the two parties. It is, in the first century, in an honor-and-shame society, one of the great shames, to break that cycle of grace. And likewise for us. So grace actually has teeth, beautiful teeth – teeth that bring you, or hooks, even – that bring you to a place where you always wanted to be. It creates a wonderful obligation of intimacy and excitement.
I recently had this as an experience. Deb and I had a van. It had 331,000 miles, it died. It was too bad. We were going to go down to one car. But then we had a brother in our ministry come to us and say that he was going to trade in a really nice car that he had a big car (and we needed a big car) and he said, you know, instead of trading it in, I’m going to give it to you guys. We’re like, aaaah! You know, you feel weird in those situations, you get weird, you get proud. But we decided, we’re going to kind of swallow deep and receive this gift. You know what it did to our relationship? It didn’t weird it out. My ears were always open to what encourages that family: "Yes! we found something that encourages them!" Not like, ‘Ohhh, we gotta make the donuts…” It was like, "Yes! We found something! Let’s do this! Let’s go by! Let’s do this! Let’s share! Let’s mention!" And then to see the joy in their eyes as well; and then it created that dance of grace that only strengthens things again and again and again. If we can understand this, I think this is a component of grace that we’ll look forward to developing more over time.
Let me just close with this idea, that if we’re going to go on to maturity, I’m not suggesting that we throw out any old hermeneutics or any old exegesis, I’m just saying let’s do the extra work; not just the historical or literary context. Do the extra work and really look at the redemptive context. Maybe this makes it more profound, how boy lost girl, and it makes you appreciate it what’s going to happen later when boy gets girl back. Or maybe it is actually a picture of them living happily ever after, and we paint that beautiful picture of Jesus’ return and what that’s going to be like for us, and with that identity, my goodness, what wouldn’t we want to do to be able to serve this great God! But if we don’t make this our culture, every quiet time, every discipleship time, every public discourse, then we are going to so easily fall into a pattern of performance. Not because it’s "our church’s" issue, but because it’s everybody’s issue. This is not unique to us. You didn’t get an 'A' in Physics from your teacher on day one, and then he said, “Wow, I bet now that you know that that’s your identity, you’re really going to live up to it.” Nothing happens that way in the world! This is a rare, counterintuitive thing, we have to really fight to be able to get to this place.