Is “obey” a bad word?

Is there such a thing as cheap grace?

Yesterday we thought about how important it is to trust in Jesus’ righteousness, not our own. We can never do enough to earn salvation.

But is it possible to go too far in the other direction? Do some folks believe that grace frees them to do whatever they want, even when it displeases God?

If so, they misunderstand grace.

Paul apparently felt the need to respond to Christians who believed this. Perhaps they had heard him preach about grace and concluded that God didn’t care how they lived.

But they were wrong, of course.

After stressing salvation as a free gift and grace as God’s way of saving us from sin, Paul makes sure his readers don’t misunderstand him.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? . . .

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:1-2, 6-14).

What does Paul mean?

He’s saying that when we recognize that our salvation comes because of grace, we’ll want to obey more than ever.

The key is why we do what we do: because we hope to put God in our debt, or because we’re deeply thankful that He saved us?

That’s a very important distinction because it says a lot about how we view God.

Never let anyone tell you that grace nullifies obedience, but also recognize that God leads you to obey by saving you.

Saved by grace

Works.

The word itself sends shudders down the spines of many religious people. They recognize a tendency in many believers to find the hope of salvation in their own efforts to be righteous, and they recoil.

And rightly so.

Some Christians—following the tradition of the ancient Pharisees—trust too much in their own ability to keep the Bible’s commands, even equating their own traditions with God’s law.

Paul fought against this perspective throughout his ministry. Listen carefully to him in Ephesians 2 as he explains how God saves:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:4-9).

Notice especially verse 8, where Paul says salvation comes by grace.

Grace is God’s giving us something that we don’t, and can’t, deserve. It’s unmerited and unearned.

In case we didn’t hear him the first time, Paul repeats it: “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Have you ever felt a little proud of your faithfulness? (Most of us have)

Ever wondered if you’ve done enough to be saved? (You haven’t)

We really need to grasp this point: we’re saved because of what Jesus did on the cross.

Does this mean that God doesn’t care about what we do? Of course not.

But it’s important that we run away from any kind of perspective that brings us confidence in what we’vedone. Our confidence, our hope, our trust, should begin and end at a little hill outside of Jerusalem.

That’s where we’re saved. It’s God’s doing, not ours.

Black Friday

For some of you, this message entered your inbox this morning at about the same time that you began braving the crowds in a line outside your favorite department store.

For others, there’s not a deal out there good enough to cause you to enter the fray.

Regardless of which camp you’re in, you’re probably aware that today is the busiest shopping day of the year.

It’s also a day on which there will likely be some senseless violence between would-be purchasers who are desperately pursuing the same bargain.

Maybe it’s appropriate for us to reflect on a couple of biblical thoughts:

Don’t let the holiday season be about the stuff.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the gifts that need to be bought, making sure we get the right item, spend the right amount, etc., that we forget the importance of what really lasts: time with family and friends, compassion for others, and our ongoing relationship with Christ.

He said, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Let’s remind ourselves often of that, and also teach it to our kids and grandkids.

Don’t let the stress change how you treat people.

It’s always mind-boggling to hear of someone getting seriously injured or even killed over a heavily discounted Xbox 360 or Tickle Me Elmo or LED television.

Whatever it is, and however great the discount, it isn’t worth treating someone else badly.

I doubt any of us would ever actually hurt someone over a bargain, but perhaps we’ll be tempted to let the stress of the next month or so cause us to be unkind to our spouse, children, or co-workers.

Paul wrote, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:30-32).

It’s just not worth it to be unkind to the people around us. Life’s too short and time’s too precious to mess it up because of holiday stress.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I don’t know what today means for you and yours, but for me it’s about food, family, friends, and . . . football. I’ve watched the Cowboys play on Thanksgiving Day for as long as I can remember 🙂

But of course today should remind us especially of the One who gives us everything that’s good.

He’s the One who gives us the food we’ll eat today.

He’s blessed us with family to love and friends to enjoy.

And He’s given us the opportunity to live in a country in which we have the freedom and means to watch football, or go shopping, or read, or whatever leisurely activity you’ll choose today.

In our Thanksgiving service last night, we read several psalms of gratitude. I’ve included them below – would you take the time to read them out loud with your family today as a reminder of the incredible God we serve?

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things (Psalm 107:1-9).

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD. I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 116:15-19).

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts
with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 100:1-5).

I hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

Hurting during the holidays

Holidays are special times, but they’re also hard for many people.

Will you pray for them today?

Some people will struggle tomorrow because their Thanksgiving table will have an empty seat.

It might belong to a soldier who’s stationed a long way from home.

Others grieve for a loved one, and tomorrow will be their first major holiday since the loss.

Some have divorced and because of custody arrangements won’t be with their children.

The pain of loneliness is especially intense for widows and widowers during the holidays.

Take a few minutes and pray specifically for these people.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. . . . The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Psalm 46:1-3,7).

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10).

Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved (Psalm 55:22).

He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us (Psalm 62:6-8).

The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him (Nahum 1:7).

Our Father looks down on us with compassion, and He sympathizes especially with those who hurt.

We pray today that He will be present with them this week.

Remembering to be thankful

How often do you genuinely thank God for all He’s done?

Not a hurried, “Lord, we’re grateful for this food” kind of thankfulness, but a genuine, from-the-heart gratitude.

In our over-indulged society it’s easy to forget to thank Him, or even to start thinking we deserve credit for the good things we have.

Jesus once healed ten lepers . . . read what happens:

On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:11-19).

As we approach Thanksgiving, we should ask: Which are we—the nine or the one?

Jesus gave all ten lepers their lives back, but only one recognized his need to thank Him.

And we do the same thing sometimes, don’t we?

In our rush to meet the next deadline, or finish the day’s to-do list, we forget about how good the Lord is to us.

This Thursday we’ll sit down and eat more than we should, but every day of the year our biggest challenge is limiting our calories, not hoping we get enough (millions in the world have the opposite problem).

This winter we’ll sleep in a warm bed every night.

We’ll have quite a few clothing choices when we get dressed for the day.

We’ll ride to work or school in a vehicle on safe roads in a country that honors rights that are important to us.

And as Christians, we’ll enjoy God’s salvation because He chose us to receive His greatest gift.

He’s given our lives back to us, so we should thank Him frequently, genuinely, and passionately.

Giving second chances

Sometimes good friends disagree, occasionally quite sharply.

I’m not sure who was right, but Barnabas and Paul once got in an argument. Apparently it was bad enough that they decided they couldn’t work together, at least for a while.

Luke tells us what happened:

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts 15:36-41).

We don’t know all the details, but Mark had gone with Paul and Barnabas on a previous missionary trip, and for some reason he had left them and returned home (Acts 13:13).

Was he homesick? Scared? Discouraged?

We don’t know, but whatever the reason, Paul didn’t think it was legitimate, and he wasn’t ready to take Mark on another trip.

So, between Paul and Barnabas, who was right? Should they have taken Mark or not?

There’s no way to know for sure, and maybe it was just a matter of opinion.

But I’d go with Barnabas.

Don’t you think it’s better to forgive?

Even Paul later changed his mind about Mark. Shortly before he died he wrote Timothy: “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).

Try this: given an opportunity to give someone a second chance, do it. Forgive. Overlook. Think the best.

Barnabas decided to give Mark another opportunity to prove himself, and apparently the young man didn’t disappoint him.

So . . . forgive your spouse. Don’t hold grudges.

Look for your children’s good points and try, when possible, to overlook their faults.

Think good things about your friends and fellow church members, and de-emphasize their negative traits.

Don’t you want people to give you the benefit of the doubt?

People tend to live up to what we expect from them, and it’s usually best to think the best.

Racial problems? In the church?

The church in our generation hasn’t always dealt well with racial problems, and that’s probably a significant understatement.

Unfortunately, we’re not alone in this. The biggest hurdle the first-century church had to cross was an ethnic one: Can non-Jews become Christians? If so, should they keep certain Jewish traditions? Can Jewish and Gentile Christians mingle and treat one another as equals?

It’s hard for us to understand how big of an issue this was.

These intense feelings are probably what led the Christians at Jerusalem to feel like they needed to check on a rumor they had heard. Listen to Luke as he tells the story:

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:19-26).

Here’s another reason why I love Barnabas.

The situation is a delicate one. The church is still predominately Jewish, even though the door had been opened to Gentile church membership with Cornelius’ conversion in Acts 10.

But when some of the Jewish Christians heard that certain preachers were going around preaching openly to “Hellenists”—probably Gentiles—they weren’t sure what they should do.

Who could handle this sensitive issue? Who is fair-minded, generous, and magnanimous? Who doesn’t let racism dictate his words and actions?

Well, Barnabas, of course.

Notice what Luke says about him: “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.”

Don’t you love this Christian man?

He did what you would expect him to do, if you know the kind of person Barnabas was. The fact that people were accepting Jesus—regardless of race—thrilled him, and he encouraged them in their faith.

Are we still troubled by division because of ethnicity, social status, educational background, or some other superficial distinction?

Do we still draw lines based on the way a person looks?

If so, we should learn from Barnabas.

When a person follows Christ, she’s our sister, regardless of her race. When a man is forgiven by the Lord, he’s our brother, even if he’s from a different background.

When we’re in God’s family, we’ve got the greatest thing in common—we call God “Father” and Jesus “Lord”—and nothing should separate us.

Barnabas knew that. He was a good man.

Believing in people

Most churches are excited to get a new member.

Not the Jerusalem church, at least when a certain new Christian wanted to join their fellowship. They thought it was a ruse he had created to hurt them, and they were scared.

And most of us would’ve had the same attitude they did, because the one wanting to work with the Christians in Jerusalem wasn’t just any young man.

His name was Saul, and as you probably remember he had spent much of his adult life trying to imprison and execute as many Christians as possible. The church knew him as their fiercest enemy.

But here’s my favorite part of the story: Barnabas, one of our favorite Bible characters, stepped up, put his arm around Saul, and vouched for him before the church.

He’s one of us. He’s real. His faith is genuine. We need to accept him.

And they did.

Here’s the way Luke tells the story:

And when [Saul] had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied (Acts 9:26-31).

Don’t you love Barnabas?

He was the kind of man who saw the good in people, recognized their potential, thought of what they could become.

And he had seen something in this young man that made him believe in him.

The church’s reaction to Barnabas’ vote of confidence is amazing: “So [Saul] went in and out among them at Jerusalem, . . .”

In other words, if Barnabas says he’s okay, then he’s okay. No other evidence was needed.

I want to be like that, don’t you? I want to be more like Barnabas, who believes in people and sees their potential, not their past. I want to be someone who helps new Christians develop confidence to use their abilities to serve the Lord.

Where’s the Saul in your congregation? Where’s the person who needs you to put your arm around him and tell him you believe in him? Where’s the one who needs you to trust her, to love her, to see her potential?

The church could use a lot more folks like Barnabas, don’t you think?

There might be a young Saul around us with unlimited potential waiting to be tapped.

Let’s be his Barnabas.

A very nice guy

You’ve probably got a favorite Bible character.

Maybe it’s Abraham, David, or Paul. Or perhaps Hannah, Sarah, or Mary.

But if Barnabas isn’t on your list, I think you should add him.

We don’t know as much about him as we do some of the others, but every time his name appears in Acts, he’s helping someone.

In your devotional today, reflect on this passage (the first time he’s mentioned):

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32-37).

I like to think about the fact that his real name was Joseph, but no one called him that anymore. The apostles had given him a nickname.

They called him “The Encourager.”

Some folks out there aren’t any fun to be around. Maybe you know The Discourager or The Criticizer, or their cousins Mr. Self-Absorbed and Mrs. Grumpy.

But Barnabas was different from most people, so his friends re-named him.

What kind of guy must he have been to lead them to call him “The Encourager”?

I think the answer is simple.

In today’s text there’s a need, and Barnabas has the resources to meet that need, so he does it. No fanfare or hoopla. He didn’t expect a parade to be planned in his honor.

He just did what needed to be done.

People needed food, so he sold some land and gave the money to the church to be distributed to those who needed it.

I doubt this was the first time this had happened. The apostles had noticed a pattern—wherever Barnabas went, he encouraged people, met needs, served, helped. Wherever he went, smiles followed.

This should probably make us think: if the people who knew us the best gave us a nickname based on our pattern of behavior, what would they call us?