Saturday, March 25, 2017

Living in freedom, facing the lure of slavery (Quiet Time Reflections)

These are my reflections on my time with God today. (To explain the format that follows, see here.)
Look: “I identified myself completely with him [Christ]. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.” (Galatians 2:19-21, The Message)

“But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong.” (Galatians 2:11, Good News Translation)

“When I saw that they were not walking a straight path in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you have been living like a Gentile, not like a Jew. How, then, can you try to force Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:14, Good News Translation)

When you recognize that the Law can’t save you from sin and death and that salvation can only come by the grace of God given to those who believe in Jesus, you’re set free to live like Paul reports living in these verses from Galatians 2.

It’s not that God’s Law is irrelevant, of course. Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The Law, enumerated in the Ten Commandments, isn’t bad. It’s from God. It’s good. As I often tell people, God’s Law identifies the markers of the blessed life, the shalom life.

But we can’t keep it. Christ could and did. And because of that, He was able to be the perfect sacrifice for my sin.

Christ’s call is for me to trust in His righteousness, to believe in Him and the power of what He accomplished on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday for me. Jesus obediently bore my sin on the cross, destroying the power of sin and death over me. He frees me from their power to destroy me eternally.

So, I’m free.

Listen: So, why then do I so easily slide back into slave thinking?

I’m like the ancient Hebrews set free by God from their slavery in Egypt, who look back longingly on the familiar certainties of the enslaved state. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost--also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic,” they said [Numbers 11:15]. “If only we had died by the LORD's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted…” [Exodus 16:3].

Today, there are people in Russia who willingly submit to the reinstitution of Tsarist, Stalinist, oligarchic ways because, despite the oppressions, the Gulags, the imprisonment, impoverishment, and murders of those who oppose the regime, the food shortages, the limited opportunities, and the culture of lies, all of that legalism was what they knew. They look back nostalgically and acquiesce like sheep to the reinstitution of their slavery.

In me, legalism is (supposed) certainty. Though I am often blind to my sin, sometimes I can see my covetousness, idolatry, and subtle thievery. I can count--like widgets in a factory--when I take God’s name in vain, when I indulge lustful thoughts, when I fail to love.

Legalism deals with the quantifiable outgrowth of my sinful nature. But it doesn’t challenge and can’t change that sinful nature itself.

“Ah,” I can say, “I just committed such and such sin. ‘God, forgive me for Jesus’ sake.’” Under legalistic thinking, repentance becomes then, less than what it’s meant to be, both heartfelt sorrow for violating the holiness of God and a joyous restoration to God through the grace of God given in Christ...and more of a business transaction, the muttering of a formula that we suppose will please God and do us good until the next time we willfully ignore His will.

Legalism also gives me the fatal luxury of thinking: “Now that I’ve paid my dues and given the Old Man in Heaven the outward obeisance He seems to want so badly, now I can judge other people from my perch of moral superiority.”

I would never express myself as baldly as I have in the previous two paragraphs. But this is what I effectively think when I approach God and my sin with a business mentality.

Legalism also can assure me that because I look good to other people, I must look good to God too.

But the Law can’t save. The Law can only show us our distance from God and our need to be saved.

There’s nothing any of us can do to be acquitted of the law’s correct condemnation of us.
And no one can keep the Law so perfectly as to warrant being right with God, forgiveness, or new life. The Law, in itself, leads only to condemnation and death.

Only the Gospel--the good news--of new life for all who believe in, trust in, follow Jesus can give us forgiveness, rightness with God, life can save or set us free.

Jesus says: “...“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24b-25).

Jesus puts those who believe in Him in an entirely different relationship with God and the Law. Jesus sets us free, as we see Paul in these verses from Galatians was free, to live out of and speak the truth.

Jesus sets us free to be who we were made to be.

He sets us free to not worry how the world may marginalize us, pigeonhole us, or hate us.

There’s nothing that the world can do to us that will take away our freedom as people made new by the grace God gives to all who believe in Jesus.

Why then do I so often fail to live in the freedom that is my baptismal birthright as a Christian?

A short list:

(1) Fear. I often tell people that I’m not afraid of being dead; I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of all the ways we can “die” in this world: losing my job, losing my reputation. I love to quote Romans 8:31-39 and believe what it teaches--that nothing can separate believers from the God we know in Christ Jesus. But I still fear what this world can do to me. It can be more scary to live in the freedom that Christ offers than in the slavery of what the world will offer when I’m willing to “play ball.”

(2) Because I live here, I know this world; I only know the place Christ has prepared for me (John 14:3) by faith (Hebrews 11:1; Romans 8:24).

I can get afraid over losing out on what this world offers by betting my whole life on life in the nest world. There’s a bit of Lot’s wife in me (Genesis 19:26). I get so used to life in this world that I forget that, as a believer in Christ, I’m a refugee and stranger here (1 Peter 2:11-12; Hebrews 11:13).

(3) I forget that God has a perfect plan for me. It’s a plan that may entail long stretches of unhappiness in this world, because Christ never promised that He would make us happy in this life. This world, ticketed for destruction, will never be able to give me the joy for which I long or for which I was made. For now, I can only see “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

But when we believe in Christ, we live in the certainty of God’s presence and favor in this world, so long as we continue to trust in Him.

We also live in the certainty that a new heaven and a new earth that will fulfill our deepest longings, undistorted by our sin. “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ -- the things God has prepared for those who love him” (Isaiah 64:4; 1 Corinthians 2:9).

(4) I want the credit. In my sinful heart, I want others to think what a terrific person I am: how together, how kind, how good. My legalistic mind figures if people say all of these good things about me, and if I’m regarded as such a great guy, it will mean that I am good and great. Like Adam and Eve, I want to “be like God.”

If I accept the truth that without You, Lord, I can do nothing good (John 15:5), that my supposed adherence to Your law, affirmed by the accolades of others who only see me on the outside, won’t make me good (in fact, only You are good, according to Mark 10:18), then receiving Your gracious gift of righteousness despite my unrighteousness is the only thing that makes sense.

But when I do that, I admit that I deserve no credit.

And that, whatever good I do is really from You, an instance of You empowering me to do what I could never do on my own: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

The Law allows me to live with the fatal fiction that I am my own god and that I am capable of doing things that matter for eternity on my own steam.

Grace allows me to walk in the good works You have prepared for me beforehand (Ephesians 2:8-10), works powered by, filled by, and made eternity-changing by You and my reliance on You alone.

Knowing that I belong to Christ forever can set me free to love God, love neighbor, fight for justice, share Christ, make disciples. I don’t worry about what the neighbors say. I don’t worry about whether I live or die. I don’t worry about getting the credit. I just live. The Gospel of Christ imparts such freedom.

No government, philosophy, economy, job, nor any other thing on earth can give that freedom. Only You can, Jesus!

Respond: Father, I repent, for failing to live in the freedom of the Gospel...for turning You into less than God, into a vendor with whom I can make deals...for ignoring how, by reverting to legalism, I pour contempt on Jesus’ cross and what He did for me there...for being afraid of a world You have already conquered (John 16:33)...for treating this world as my ultimate destination...for exchanging the freedom of being Your child for the certain slaveries of the finite things this world has to offer.

Today, help me to live in the freedom and boldness I see in Paul in these verses in Galatians.

Today, help me to speak Your truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

Today, help me to keep my eyes on eternity, knowing, for one thing, that’s the only way that I can do anything worthwhile in this world. In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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