Sunday, 5 December 2010

Glorious Grace

Most religions - and Christianity is no exception - include some sort of teaching regarding what is or isn't good or acceptable behaviour.

In Christianity, the bar often seems exceptionally high - for example:
  • "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
  • "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"
  • "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."
  • "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."
  • "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
(the above all come from Jesus' famous "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew chapters 5-7)
  • "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

One of the things I love most about my faith, but which in some ways also serves to compound the above, is that God isn't just standing at a distance somewhere dishing out commandments for us to follow.  He actually got involved!  The Bible teaches that God became a man in Jesus, suffered all the same temptations we do and then suffered and died - willingly, and without bitterness - for our sakes.  A Christian - by definition - is a follower of Christ.  We're called not only to obey His teaching but to follow the example He set for us by His way of life.

I have to put my hand up right here and now and say that I can't do this! I am not the sort of person that Jesus was! I am selfish, proud and competitive. I am often critical of others and get jealous of other people's success. I worry about what other people think of me. Even while I'm trying to do good I often find I'm congratulating myself on my "noble" behaviour! As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 7: "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing."

So what hope is there for someone like me (or you, come to think of it!)? Quite a lot as it turns out! The apostle Paul has this to say in Romans 3:

"But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith."

The "law" was the instructions for living given to the Jews through Moses - their greatest prophet. God promised to look after the Jewish people and in return they were expected to live according to God's law.  The problem was that the Jews were not able to keep their side of the agreement - instead of helping them to live better lives, the law all too often just ended up showing them how bad they were! Something else was needed.

Contained within the law, were various instructions regarding sacrifices, which to some extent could be used by the Jews to atone for their failings. Sin - as we all know - has a price. When we behave selfishly or greedily it affects others - they suffer and in the end we suffer as well. The sacrificial system was a way for the Jews to acknowledge the price of sin and take some responsibility for it. It also acknowledges the effect that sin has on those who are not responsible - the poor animals used in the sacrifices had done nothing wrong, but they ended up suffering for someone else's mistakes!

In the above quote from the book of Romans, Paul is referring back to this sacrificial system when he then says, "God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood". When Jesus was crucified he completed the old sacrificial system (which as it now turns out, for various historical reasons, is no longer practised), by taking responsibility, once and for all, for my sin and yours. He acknowledged the damage that sin does, in my life and yours and in all of our relationships - with God and with each other - and He took personal responsibility for it! That's just staggering when you think about it!

Because of this it is now possible for you and I to have a relationship with God that is based, not on adherence to a set of moral instructions, but on God taking personal responsibility for us and on what Jesus has done on our behalf!  This is "grace" - God's undeserved favour towards us, based not on what we have done or will do, but purely on His love and forgiveness.

Finally, the last 5 words of the above quote from Romans are significant - "to be received by faith".  This is where we come in.  Jesus has done all this for our benefit - but we only get the benefit when we opt in, and we opt in by faith - by saying, "yes I want this, yes I accept it, yes I want to be part of it".  Faith in Jesus still means being His follower which still means learning to live the way He did - and that's not easy, but it's a process. The relationship bit is sorted though - we belong to God now and it's His job to look after us and help us to work this through.

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