Friday, 29 October 2010

Faith Must Look Like Something

“True holiness does not consist merely of believing and feeling, but of doing and bearing, and a practical exhibition of active and passive grace. Our tongues, our tempers, our natural passions and inclinations - our conduct as parents and children, masters and servants, husbands and wives, rulers , and subjects - our dress, our employment of time, our behaviour in business, our demeanour in sickness and health, in riches and poverty - all, all these are matters which are fully treated by inspired writers.” (JC Ryle)

To a Mormon the life of faith is best characterised by words and phrases like duty, preparedness, striving, pressing on. A popular Mormon hymn urges:

“Put your shoulder to the wheel; push along.

Do your duty with a heart full of song.

We all have work; let no one shirk.

Put your shoulder to the wheel.”

Leafing through the November 2009 Conference issue of the Mormon Ensign magazine I find sermons entitled “What Have I Done for Someone Today”, “Stewardship – a Sacred Trust”, and “Moral Discipline”; admirable themes such as personal improvement, service, holiness, discipline and obedience. A Mormon would insist that faith must look like something and this is what it looks like.

When we say that “we are justified freely by his grace” (Ro.3:23-24) and express an assurance about eternity, to a Mormon this doesn’t look like anything so much as hubristic easy-believism. A Mormon would understand us to mean that “you don’t have to do anything” once you accept Jesus, say the sinner’s prayer. While the Mormon life is characterised by striving and duty the Mormon perceives the Christian life as lazy and irresponsible. Mormons will, no doubt, recognise that Christians are “good people” but will be alarmed that we are apparently unconcerned about striving to be worthy; worthiness is a touchstone of Mormonism. Mormons believe we have taken the easy option, entertained false hope. Is it any wonder when Mormon leaders encourage this thinking?

"Our critics' belief, based on the Bible, holds that man is saved by grace alone. Theirs is by far the easier way. Our position, also based on the Bible, but strengthened by other scriptures, holds that we are saved by grace 'after all we can do’ and we are responsible by conduct and by covenants to live the standards of the gospel." (Boyd K Packer, Mormon apostle, Peaceable Followers of Christ, April 1998 Ensign)

Is ours ‘by far the easier way’? Do Christians regard themselves free from moral obligations? Paul preached the message of grace so powerfully that the same charge was raised against him and he flatly denied it (Ro.3:8) What does the Christian life look like? How do Christians live, think, do things, conduct our lives on our journey of faith?

Spiritual Fruit

The Christian life is not marked by moral turpitude or by duty-bound strivings but spiritual fruitfulness. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal.5:22-23) But aren’t these the virtues Mormons teach and strive for? Wouldn’t you find these words in a Mormon’s vocabulary? So what’s the difference?

In John’s gospel Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, ESV) To abide means to remain in, continue with, stay in relationship with. A Mormon might insist that this is exactly what he is striving to do, to keep the commandments and merit that relationship. However, we have seen that we enter that relationship “freely by his grace” (Ro.3:23-24); we have explained grace to Mormons.

But the Mormon understanding of the relationship between grace and law, mercy and justice is most peculiar and logically unsustainable. In a sermon entitled Love and Law, Mormon apostle Dallin Oaks insisted:

“Some seem to value God’s love because of their hope that his love is so great and so unconditional that it will mercifully excuse them from obeying His laws...Mercy cannot rob justice, and those who obtain mercy are ‘they who have kept the covenant and observed the commandment’ [D&C 54:6]” (Dallin H Oaks, Ensign, Nov.2009, p.26)

But if you have kept the covenant and observed the commandment why would you need mercy? Surely mercy is reserved for those who have failed to keep the commandments, who have thrown themselves on his mercy? Isn’t that what we mean when we repent, ask for forgiveness? Surely the Scripture is clear, “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor.15:3) and not for our acts of righteousness? A Mormon might insist that our righteous acts count towards our justification but we have addressed the relationship between grace and works and seen that “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Ro.3:20) It is by confessing and trusting in Christ’s completed work on the cross that we enter into that relationship in which we are to abide.

Now think of a fruit tree in your garden. You don’t go to bed with the tree bare and wake the next day to find branches groaning under the weight of fully ripe fruit. There is a natural process from first flowering, through early fruit to fully ripe. The Christian grows in the fruit of the Spirit over time, from the first flowering of new birth through to full maturity. Paul’s letter to Christians in Ephesus helps put this into perspective, as he expands our horizons with a magnificent vision of God’s plan and purposes for the church, and then brings us back down to the reality of every-day living as he explains what should be our response in light of God’s eternal purposes.

Every Spiritual Blessing in Christ (Eph.1-3)

“Christ is a jewel more worth than a thousand worlds, as all know who have Him. Get Him, and get all; miss Him and miss all.” (Thomas Brooks)

The letter can be divided in two, with chapters one to three explaining what God has done “in Christ” and his purposes for the church, and chapters four to six explaining what we are to do, how we are to live, in light of this.

Eph.1:4 We may not have been chosen to be an Abraham to found a nation, a David to establish a dynasty, or a Paul to evangelise the Gentiles; nevertheless there is purpose in his choosing you and me. We were chosen to be holy and blameless in his sight. Not to be a super race of spiritual savants but to be a holy people, a new human race.

Eph.1:10 There is a plan “to bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ.” We followed the way of the world, pleasing ourselves, and look where it has got us. That way we became objects of wrath and dead in our sin (Eph.2:3b-5a)

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph.2:4-7)

We were made alive in Christ / in order to demonstrate the riches of God’s grace. It is a worthwhile exercise to go through these chapters and count the number of times “in Christ Jesus” appears in one form or another. It is about him and we are living evidence of God’s grace and kindness “in Christ”.

Eph.2:15 Gentiles were once separated from God (2:12) but now God’s purpose is that, “in Christ”, the two, Jew and Gentile, should be made one new man; that is the church. (1:10; cf Col.1:18) This plan embraces much more than your particular church or denomination, it transcends cultures and generations, is vast in its scope and ambition and includes all who put their trust in God and submit to his purposes.

Eph.2:19 God makes of us a new society, and me a citizen with God’s people and a member of God’s household. You are included, not simply in a job lot, but as an individual, but we are saved into community, the community of the saved; the church.

Eph.3: 8-9 God’s eternal wisdom and purpose are demonstrated through the church. We are living proof of what God intends and will do. That might seem a daunting task but the one that chose us, saved us, made us alive in Christ and continues to work in and through us to achieve his sovereign purpose; we are God’s workmanship (Eph.3:10) A Christian is God’s “work of art”, a demonstration of his love, the evidence of his purposes and proof of his grace.

Therefore Live Like This (Eph.4-6)

“Have you ever noticed the difference in the Christian life between work and fruit? A machine can do work; only life can bear fruit.” (Andrew Murray)

Eph.4:1-3 “I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (ESV)

“I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (NASB)

“Therefore”: In light of all that has been said thus far, what God has done, this is what we are to do, how we are to live.

Eph.4:15 We are to “grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ”. The body of the “one new man” and all its constituent parts should match in maturity the Head. Immature faith results in an unstable Christian who can be “blown about by every wind of doctrine” (Js.1:6-7, cf Eph.4:14). The writer to the Hebrews complains that people still need elementary teachings explained while he wishes to take them further (Heb.6:1-2)

Eph.4:23 There is a call to live intelligently. In Eph.3:17-19 Paul’s prayer is that Christians should be able “to grasp (apprehend, comprehend) how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know (be sure of, understand) this love that surpasses knowledge” How can we know something that surpasses knowledge? We are “to be made new in the attitude of [our] minds, and put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:23)

Faith Has to Look Like Something

When people look at Christians they see faith lived out and working and, according to Paul, they should see a people, not perfect, but growing in stature and maturing in character. Honest, because we are all members of one body and my integrity is everyone’s business (Eph.4:25); living a life of love, because we are God’s “dearly loved children” and imitators of him (Eph.5:1); walking in light, because we are “children of light” and bear “the fruit of light, [which] is all goodness, righteousness and truth” (Eph.5:8), and wise “making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph.5:15).

This is not a message of works salvation but describes the walk of the saved. It is not a question of becoming a better person in order to get into God’s good books but of being saved by grace for a purpose. A life at last lived as it should be, lived in the power of God as part of the new community of believers called the church. That power is demonstrated by the evidence of new hearts, renewed minds and new lives that conform increasingly to the image of Christ.

The well-known final section in chapter six, the armour of God, is an account of God’s equipping the Christian for such a life. If we are strong we are strong in the Lord (6:10), we don the armour when we’re baptised into Christ “for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal.3:27, cf Ro.13:14); our protection is Christ.

Belt of truth Eph.6:14 Jesus is the truth (John 14:6)

Gospel of peace Eph.6:15 Jesus is our peace (Ro.5:1)

Shield of faith Eph.6:16 Faith is in Jesus (John 5:24)

Helmet of salvation Eph.6:17 Salvation is in Jesus (Acts 4:12)

Sword of the Spirit Eph.6:17 The Spirit is Jesus’ Spirit (John 14:16; John 14:26)

Our equipping is complete when we are “in Christ” and our purpose fulfilled when we reflect his character and demonstrate his grace and purpose in our lives. We grow in doing this by abiding in him. This is God’s plan and our journey “in Christ”; not marked by shirking our moral duties or by fretting over them but by growing in them; this is what our faith looks like, not fretful but increasingly fruitful.

1 comment:

  1. You describe a fruit bearing christian that is the exception not the norm. The same goes for mormons, few are bearing real fruit because they focus on the fruit and not the vine (Christ). All said, there is a small number in each group that "gets grace" (pun intented). The majority in either group belong for social, cultural, or some other wrong reason.

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