Saturday, May 23, 2015

Jesus Alone Saves

(*A couple of disclaimers. First, I chose to put this in one post instead of a series. Be forewarned, it's long. Second, as with everything I write, this is my story. I'm no expert. I write my experiences and hopefully they somehow (not always neatly) point to Jesus. I understand it may not be your experience and that's o.k. I appreciate different journeys, stories, and faith experiences. In fact, I would say I need them. I need your differences. I need to know that there is way forward despite our differences. I want to learn how love prevails.)

Paul Loved Those In His Care

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Sometimes Paul spoke with endearing words and an affirming tone. He longed to see the congregations he left behind. They were his beloved and he missed them desperately. In the book of Philippians Paul says, "I yearn for you," "I thank my God for you." Clearly, strong words expressing a strong love.

However, if you read the book of Galatians it's not quite the same feel. The book opens up with Paul's standard greeting. "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

Then, he cuts to the chase.

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all."

He continues, "O foolish Galatians!"

At one point it is as if he catches himself in mid-sentence to say, "I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you."

But then he keeps going...

"I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!"

"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another."

Paul never shied away from calling it like it is.

Imagine if your pastor wrote you a letter like that today. It might go like this, "What the heck are you doing? You believed, and now you are deserting what I taught you and relying on your good deeds to earn you points with God. I wish that whoever is influencing you would cut um, well, *cough* *cough*, cut their balls off. Now, get back to the business of the Gospel because that is why Jesus came. To set you free, not so you could sin more, but so you could love more."

Paul wrote to the church in Galatia to remind them of Jesus.

What distracts me from Jesus? What prompts my heart with promises of freedom that only lead to slavery? What bright shiny object has me locked up in chains again? What theology, cult, or club sidetracked me? What beckons me back onto the slave block?

Having begun by the Spirit, am I now being perfected by the flesh?

Forgiveness Of Sins Brings Freedom

It is easy to believe that I, one who "gets grace" and understands Law/Gospel - that I am the "right" one. It has been easy for me to sink into the acceptance preached and the grace taught. Because, who knew? I never knew. So I set out to preach no other gospel. To boast in nothing else. Except, my boasting was in doctrine. My claims were about theology. Sure Jesus was thrown in there. But all along, I was peddling something that had no power. You may be angry when you hear me say that Law/Gospel has no power. But it's true. Law/Gospel is a theology, a set of doctrines void of power. It is a hermeneutic principle, a theological distinction, an approach to understanding the whole of scripture (see Wikipedia, and The Law and The Gospel by Michael Horton). 

When the God of the universe chose to reveal his Son Jesus to me and open my eyes to the freedom he brought when he died for me, he gave me power from on high. He loved me. But His love for me was not dependent on my understanding of Law/Gospel, reformational teachings, or grace. In fact, I understood nothing because I was blind. I was dead.

Yes, I have known freedom from understanding Law/Gospel. I've taught it, and I embrace it, especially now in days of confusion and doubt. But I see clearly, now more than ever, the truth that a doctrine can't save me. Truths prescribed and subscribed to, can't raise dead people. Jesus raises dead people. Jesus sets captives free.

The ACE hotel is easy to spot due to this sign on its roof (Photo: Lauren Coleman)
{photo credit: Lauren Coleman/}

Jesus Alone Saves

Does knowing the Law/Gospel paradigm give me a lens with which to read my Bible? Yes. But, it does not have the power to take a person who is dead in their sins and raise them to newness of life. Paul said it best, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3).

Reliance on a hermeneutic or doctrine is not the same thing as reliance on Jesus. Only when I can say...

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;

...can I really be free.

Nothing in my hand I bring...not doctrine, not a hermeneutic principle, not my denominational set of beliefs...simply to the cross I cling.

So, I found I was crushed by the very thing that was meant to set me free because that very thing was doctrine, not Jesus. I was clinging to theology which had no power to rescue my free fall, no power to transform my broken heart. I replaced Jesus with a lens. I used a lens to look at Jesus instead of looking at Jesus with my own eyes.

While using the Law/Gospel lens with which to view scripture I found I was not beholding the Lamb who took away my sins. 

Paul reminds me what is important. Jesus. The one who died for my sins in accordance with the Scriptures.

Why Does This Matter?

, I find it an important discussion because of the renewed interest in the Law/Gospel hermeneutic. It has been used powerfully in the lives of many, my own included. However, the following observations are critical in order for me to "keep the main thing, the main thing."

· The Law/Gospel hermeneutic is not the Gospel.
· The Law/Gospel hermeneutic is not power unto salvation.
· A Law/Gospel understanding is not required for saving faith.

Faith rides many trains. The vehicle God uses to deliver faith is the word ("So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17), but the word is carried in many different boxcars. Believers for centuries past and for centuries to come will know the saving grace of the Lord Jesus apart from knowing and understanding the Gospel through a Law/Gospel hermeneutic.

Second, it's an important discussion because clinging to a theology can often produce tribalism. I noticed it in my own thinking. One of the reasons Paul was concerned about "another gospel" seeping into the churches he wrote to was because of the pride it produced. Any gospel apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ leads to pride and is evidenced by a lack of love toward others. When you add anything to Jesus, the Gospel becomes void and powerless. Reliance is now placed on the "plus something" and it can lead to boasting in self. A sense of superiority seeps in, and condescension, mockery, and disdain follow. In other words, those who have "so great a knowledge" assume they are better off than those who have no knowledge of it. I believed [wrongly] that I had superior knowledge and insider information.

I found that instead of becoming more approachable, I was actually becoming less approachable. My doctrine kept some people at arms length because it was my doctrine (clinging to my rightness) that drove my heart, not Jesus. Lovelessness comes from clinging to my "rightness." Lovelessness does not come from beholding the Lamb who takes away sin.

I admit to falling into the thinking that said I’m right and you’re wrong. I failed to love my neighbor as I protested their views, their doctrines, and their teachings. Funny thing though, eventually I was put out for not believing "right theology." When placed outside the camp, my eyes opened. I began to see, maybe for the very first time, the beauty of Jesus for losers and last ones, for the abused and the forgotten, for the not wanted and the not part of.

I am exactly who Jesus rescues. He went outside the camp to find me.

Jesus marched out and said, “She’s mine.” 

You may have the same story. If so, a doctrine did not march out to your rescue. Jesus, very God, died to save you. He alone, almighty in power, came down to save you. He does that for all of us.

A Personal Reflection

I did not grow up in the church. God saved me when I was forty. I was not looking. My husband and I went to church so our son could earn a religion merit badge for Boy Scouts (another conversation for another day). That’s when Love broke in. Four weeks later, I left church different than when I went in. God raised my dead body and made me a new creation. Did I know what grace was? No. Did I know what the Gospel was? No. Did I understand Law/Gospel? No. I had never heard those words before. 

Love, It's What There's Just Too Little Of

All of this is messing with me a bit. I’m asking a lot of questions now. How did Jesus get buried underneath a hermeneutic? How is it that such good news can be used to separate, not unite?

To be sure, it’s nothing new. Down through the centuries doctrine has divided the Christian community. And isn't that the real problem? Divisions? Quarreling? In-fighting and back-biting? All of it, lacking love? Find Christians clinging to doctrine and you will find divisions and quarreling nearby. It would seem however, that those who have truth, who have Jesus, who know we love because he first loved us, it seems to me we would be the most gracious, the most loving, the least bothered when someone doesn't agree with us. If we all believe in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we can instead, warm our hearts by that love-fueled fire. If we all believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived as a human, died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of God, ruling and reigning and praying for us, we can agree together that there’s no other Gospel. There is no other Love that’s greater than the love of the Father for his beloved which fuels love for one another, so that we can...

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...stoke the same flames of righteousness, faith, love, and life that spiral up from the ashes of our death. the no-named preacher in Revelation (Rev. 5:5), point others to the slain Lamb. 

...point to the one with all authority – not because he slays, but in his own slaying, becomes the Redemption for a people from every tribe and language and people and nation (probably people that don’t agree on everything.) 

If the gospel I am preaching causes me to love more, it’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If the gospel I am preaching causes me to mock, condemn, judge or ostracize, it has nothing to do with Jesus. If the gospel I am preaching causes fear or anxiety, it’s not from Jesus. If the gospel I preach pits one against another, I have gone off track. 

Maybe a look at what the beloved disciple John wrote would help reorient my wayward heart. He tells us these things in an effort to melt our hearts, to remind us that in the midst of suffering we can know we have an Advocate who loves us. He wants us to know that because love is from God and is God, our only hope for loving others is knowing so great a Love for ourselves. He writes so we may know,


Love is from God. God is love. God was made manifest among us - God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that you or I have loved God...

...but that Jesus loves me...

...but that Jesus loves you.

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