Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Dangerously Good News of the Gospel

 For the past several months Northshore Vineyard has been going a few verses at a time through the book of Philippians.  The passage we looked at church this morning (sermon audio here ) concerned the Apostle Paul’s continual fight against a works based righteousness that was threatening to creep into all of the churches he had planted.  In Philippians 3:1-6 Paul gives one of his strongest warnings against those who would try to add to the gospel of Christ by works of the flesh.  It is tempting to see the issues that Paul was addressing in these scriptures as merely issues facing the early church and yet I can’t help but think that these issues are still alive and well today.  While modern day churches rarely have folks coming in trying to persuade folks to get circumcised, the temptation to add our own efforts to the work of Christ is always there.

In my early years as a Christian I really struggled with a works-based righteousness.  I had come to think that prayer, worship, service, and giving somehow made me more acceptable to God.  This caused my relationship with God to be a continual roller coaster.  When I was reading my Bible, praying, giving and serving in the church whenever the doors were open I felt that God was somehow impressed by my performance but when I would stumble and sin I would run from God (like Adam and Eve) thinking that I needed to hide for a bit until my feelings of shame would subside and then I would get back into trying really hard to do better. 

In many of the churches that I was a part of in my earlier days as a Christian it was quite normal to have a 15-20 minute message on giving before the offering plate was passed.  One of the typical messages that I heard at least 8-10 times a year was based on Malachi 3:8-12
8 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?
“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.

The message communicated with these verses was that if you wanted to be blessed or if you didn’t want to be cursed you would give more money.  I surely wasn’t a big fan of being cursed and was quite fond of being blessed (especially financially). 

The thing is that as I continued my faith journey I finally started learning something about how to study the Bible (which can be very dangerous indeed!)  The number one rule of studying the Bible is to try and understand the scriptures in context.  Once one has made a reasonable effort to understand what the scriptures meant to the original audience, in context with other scriptures and the grand narrative of scripture then one can move on to how to apply those scriptures to the current modern context.  And yet when I began to do that with these verses from Malachi I began to realize that what I had been taught so many times was not appropriate for one in the New Covenant.  In Malachi 3 God is getting on to Israel for not living up to the terms of the covenant he had made with them.  This would be no different than someone violating the marriage covenant by sleeping around.  God was rebuking then because they were no longer participating in their part of the agreement.  That’s the meaning of those verses.  But to apply those verses that were based on the terms of the Old Covenant to our New Covenant life in Jesus is to bring legalism and works based righteousness into our experience.  This simple illustration is no different from what Paul was confronting in his churches, it’s the gospel of Jesus Plus and it really isn’t the gospel (the good news) at all!

The last time I remember hearing this message on Malachi 3 was some 10 or 12 years ago and I had finally had enough of it.  I looked at Dina and said, “I quit!”  I told her that we were not going to tithe anymore for at least a year.  Dina was very scared at first thinking that somehow we would be cursed but I had come to realize that in Jesus I am not cursed.  In Jesus I am freed from the curse!  In Jesus I am as blessed as I will ever be!  So that day Dina and I embarked on a wonderfully scary adventure of giving in a way that participates with Jesus instead of trying to add to the work of Jesus.  Instead of giving out of guilt and manipulation, instead of giving to try and be blessed and not cursed, we began to invite God into our finances.  Each month we would take the money we had set aside to give and ask God how we could best spend it for his purposes.  Many months we just gave our money to the church but on many other occasions we found all kinds of opportunities to participate in the generosity of Christ.  On several occasions we paid the bills of people who had their electricity turned off or bought groceries for those who didn’t have enough food or diapers for a single mom who couldn’t afford them.  When we stepped away from legalism we didn’t become less generous but more generous.  We weren’t giving to get blessed but giving because in Jesus we are blessed!  Even though we were two poor college students we began giving at a whole new level of sometimes even 20 percent of our income each month. 

The truth is that anything we do in church can become legalism if we are not careful.  Though prayer, worship, serving and giving can all be vibrant expressions of faith in Jesus, none of these things get us points with God.  Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus is our high priest, our mediator between us and the Father.   As New Covenant people when we pray we are entering into the intercession of Jesus before the Father.  When we worship we are entering into the worship of Jesus before the Father.  In Galatians 3 Paul talks of how when God approaches Abraham with a great blessing (Genesis 12:1-3) that Abraham simply responded in faith.  According to Paul this response of Abraham to the blessing of God made Abraham righteous.  The same is true for us today with Jesus.  We simply respond with faith saying yes to all that Jesus has done and all that he continues to do.  This is the good news!  But it seems too good to be true doesn’t it?  There is something within us all that wants to add to the simple sincere response of faith to who Jesus is yet to add anything to what Jesus has done is to take away from what he has done and to return again to the slavery of which Jesus came to save us. 

Grace is a dangerous thing.  Grace was dangerous when Paul encountered Jesus on his way to persecute the church.  Grace was dangerous when Martin Luther encountered it as a monk reading Paul’s writings on how we are saved by grace through faith, lest anyone should boast.  Yet the offer of grace is open to any who will be crazy enough like Abraham to simply believe, to simply follow God into his wonderful plans. 
  • How have you lived a Jesus + faith in your journey?
  • Do you struggle with getting your identity in what you do rather than what Jesus did?
  • How have you found grace to be dangerous in your own journey?


Saved by Grace said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your post!

I find it quite disheartening the way people are trying to add to the salvation experience. Some preachers have promptly declared that non-tithers cannot make heaven, quite bizarre isn’t it? It seems as far as they are concerned we are no longer saved by grace through faith alone and salvation only becomes salvation when tithing is involved.

Anyways, keep up the good work and God bless.

Penny Murray said...

Loved this as a sermon and glad to see it blogged. Grace has changed everything for me and on a daily basis I have to remember it and be thankful for it and walk in it, to keep legalism away. It is quite a battle some days. Graces changes everything and brings true freedom and joy to live as part of the kingdom.

Russell Kelly wrote PhD dissertation and then a book ("Should the Church Teach Tithing?") on the history of tithing and New Covenant giving that made some very interesting observations on Malachi 3, and the "curse."
He says, if you start reading at Mal. 1, vs 6, you see that God is directly addressing the priests, and continues to do so in Ch. 3.

Nehemiah 13 and Numbers 18:29-30 also explain how the Priests where robbing God of the tithes and offerings why stealing the Levites portion and not taking it to where God directed.

Keith Walker said...

This is a great post. I had similar experiences growing up in the Bible belt with legalism. Took me 30 years to get that out of my system. Legalism is death, giving is living.