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Category Archives: Theology 101

I was talking with a friend who is an investment counselor. He helped me understand that a big part of what he does is help manage people’s expectations. People have certain expectations about what should or could or ought to happen in the stock market, with their investments, with their savings. Some expectations might be reasonable, some are not. Helping people honestly own their expectations and then bring those expectations in line with reality is part of his job.

That conversation spilled over into thinking about our lives as followers of Jesus. And we began to think out loud about the expectations that we have–and do not have–for the “Christian life.” Having come to understand the truth that is found in Jesus, what kinds of expectations do we have for what that life with Jesus will look like?

And we began to think out loud, looking into the book of Acts. What about the expectations the earliest “Christians” might have had about the life they entered into?

The first “converts”–post-resurrection–came at Pentecost. Not even two months after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The events are recorded for us in Acts 1-2. (Which you might want to read, because I’m not going to post both chapters. ) The essence of what happens is as follows.

Jesus has instructed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem because he has a “gift” for them. Although he has explained that he is leaving the planet, he has also explained that his departure will mean that he will send “the promise of the Father” to them.

Those who heard this explanation prayerfully wait in Jerusalem. They anticipate some gift from the Father. And they associate this gift with the Spirit because of what Jesus has told them. Exactly what it will be like, they don’t know. But they expect some encounter with the Spirit.

On Pentecost, the 120 who are gathered together are introduced into a vibrant, experientially-real, fresh dimension of life with the Spirit of God. Consistent with Old Testament prophecies, they receive “power from on high” just as Jesus had promised.

What happened to the 120 generated a little commotion in the city as visitors to Jerusalem, there for the feast, overheard some of what was happening in the gathering of the 120. The crowd is puzzled and abuzz.

Peter gets the attention of the crowd and begins to explain. Going back to Old Testament prophecies, Peter tells the crowd that what has happened is a fulfillment of God’s promises.

Peter points out that this fulfillment of a “poured out” Spirit is part of what the Messiah (Israel’s promised deliverer) was to inaugurate. Jesus, Peter declares, is this Messiah. He was crucified, he was buried, he was raised, he ascended to the right hand of the Father, he received the gift of the Spirit, and he has poured out this gift on all the “bond servants” of God. And, Peter says, this is what has happened that has attracted such attention.

And those who are listening are cut to heart. The Spirit is working on them, even as he is working through the 120. And those who are listening cry out for help. They want to know, from Peter, what they should do.

Peter explains. If they understand that Jesus is the Messiah and that he has come to solve their sin problem through his death and resurrection and that he is the ascended Lord of all, then there is an appropriate response to that understanding. He says that they should “repent” (that means, “change your mind”). They should change their minds about how they have been thinking about Jesus. And they should “be baptized” (that means, “publicly identify yourself with Jesus”). They should not stand aloof or distant from Jesus and the community that shares life with him.

And then Peter says this intriguing thing:

“And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)

What is so intriguing to me about this is what Peter does, and does not, say about coming to put one’s trust in Jesus–seen in the repentance and baptism. If Peter had responded to the crowd the way that many Christians in our day and age talk about the Gospel, he would have invited people to put their faith in Jesus and then he would have said:

“And you will one day get to go to heaven. For having your sins forgiven is the big point and it is for you and for you children and for all who are far off, and being forgiven means that you will get into heaven one day.”

Now there is truth in that. I am not denying that. Peter did mention the forgiveness of sins in speaking of Jesus (in Acts 2:38). But Peter’s expectation–and the expectation he stirred in the minds and hearts of his hearers–was not that responding to Jesus merely meant that eternity future would be changed. Peter’s expectation was not simply that one day those who responded to the message would get to go to heaven. Peter’s expectation–and the expectation he stirred in the minds and hearts of his hearers–was that responding to Jesus would mean that from that very day forward their every day life would be radically altered because the Spirit of God would show up in a manifest way in their lives.

Peter doesn’t even mention “going to heaven when you die.” They wouldn’t have thought that was what the Christian life was all about. For these earliest Christians, the “Christian life” was wrapped up in a Spirit-enabled, experientially-real, present-day-life-altering encounter with the living Jesus.

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I am thinking about how much I make of the Gospel–the good news about what Jesus accomplished for us through his life and death and resurrection and ascension–and wondering if I typically think “big enough” about all that he did for us.

Even understanding that every occasion for talking about the Gospel will not necessarily provide opportunity to share all the implications of the Gospel, I realize that I often share a somewhat reductionistic account of the good news. So I want to let the Scriptures continue to reshape my thinking so that I live more Gospel-consistent and with the hope that as I share with others the good news that I actually share more of the expansive greatness of God’s grace that comes to us in Jesus.

Paul touched on the richness of the Gospel in his letter to the Romans:

But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:15-21)

What is included here?

  • Abounding grace that reaches all who have found life in Jesus.
  • Free grace that results in justification before God.
  • Freedom from condemnation and judgment because of God’s work in and through Jesus.
  • Life in exchange for death through the grace and righteousness provided us in Jesus.
  • Grace that abounds beyond the extent and power of sin.
  • Jesus’ obedience and righteousness charged to the account of those who have received this good news.
  • Grace reigning in our lives bringing us into eternal life.

The more I reflect and meditate on this passage, the more I realize how superficial my sharing of the Gospel can be at times. I speak to others as if the Gospel is simply, only about forgiveness. Now that is true; substantially anchored in many Scriptures. But that forgiveness–as sweet as it is, as essential as it is, as much a grace-gift that it is–falls short of embracing all that Jesus has done for us and all that he is for us.

If our thinking about the Gospel became permeated and saturated with Paul’s thinking about the kinds of things that are included in this amazing work of grace, what would change in the way we related to God? Or the way we shared the good news with others? Or the way we worshipped God this coming Sunday? Or the way we prayed today?

When we talk about the “good news” of what Jesus has done, we cannot always explain all that was accomplished for us by Jesus. There are constraints of time and understanding that may preclude us sharing all that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus means.  However, when I listen to friends and followers of Jesus talk about the good news, I notice a common kind of description.

The Gospel–the good news about Jesus–is often presented as the truth about Jesus dying on the cross for sinners so that people can be forgiven and, having experienced the forgiveness that comes by grace through faith, those who believe in Jesus can one day go to heaven.

Now I would not deny that such a presentation of the Gospel touches on key aspects of Jesus’ great work of grace. I just wonder if, in presenting the good news this way, we end up thinking inadequately about this great work of grace and we end up offering those who don’t know the good news a minimalistic understanding of God’s great work of grace. It goes without saying that every Gospel-rooted conversation will not touch on all the dimensions of the Gospel, but I do wonder if we realize all that happened for us in and through Jesus.

Paul writes about Jesus’ great work on our behalf in Romans 5:

But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:15-21)

What else is here, in this overview of the Gospel, that is only minimally touched on in speaking about “Jesus dying for sinners”?

First I notice the abundance of grace that Paul refers to. Yes, forgiveness is, in truth, an amazing work of grace. But there is so much more grace in what Jesus has done and does do for us than just the grace of forgiveness. So many–even those who have come to know Jesus and receive forgiveness–end up feeling stuck in their sin and feel defeated. But Paul says that where there is sin, grace abounds even more! Grace trumps sin, grace is greater than sin, grace will win out over sin. And that is more than just experiencing forgiveness. No matter how crippling the sin, grace is even more abundant, even more powerful, even more pervasive.

In this passage Paul also talks about justification and righteousness (words that share a similar Greek root word). When we speak of Jesus’ work on our behalf as solely about being forgiven, we can be left feeling as if we aren’t on God’s bad side any longer . . . yet without really feeling or knowing that we truly belong. We intuitively know that forgiveness erases all the “bad marks” against us; Jesus dealt with the punishment due our sin on the cross.

But to stand before God requires more than “no bad marks”–you need positive holiness to stand in the presence of the holy God. And that is where justification and righteousness come into view. Part of the amazing thing Jesus did for us was not only to suffer on our behalf to pay the penalty for our sins (and thus provide for us forgiveness), but he also lived a perfectly sinless life and offers that life in exchange for our own (and thus provide for us positive holiness). Through the obedience of the One, the many will be made righteous.

Although individually we did not sin just like Adam did, being united to Adam in our humanity, we share in fallenness and sin. Although individually we did not live holy like Jesus did, being united to Jesus through faith and becoming a part of his new humanity, we share in his positive holiness.

If we began to think and talk and share about the good news about Jesus this way, it might really impact the way we relate to God, the way we deal with our own struggles with sin, the way we think of our own lives before God.

We are not simply forgiven–as glorious and good and gracious as forgiveness is. We are recipients of a super-abundance of grace that overwhelms the sin problem we feel strapped by–no matter the struggle there will always be more and more and more grace to address it. We are also granted a positive holy standing before God–just as if we had always lived as perfectly holy and sinless as Jesus always lived.

It probably goes without saying that when God speaks, he means what he says. He doesn’t speak idle words. So when he described for Adam and Eve what he wanted for them and their descendants, he really was describing what he intended to have happen through them and through their lives. In those words, recorded for us in Genesis 1:28, we find a four-fold charge:

Be fruitful and multiply–increase in number

Fill the earth–spread out across the planet and inhabit it

Subdue it–exercise appropriate rule over the inhabited world

Rule over creatures–have mastery over all other living things

In previous posts, we have noticed how God repeatedly steps in to ensure what he wanted to happen would happen in spite of how people fell short of fulfilling his call. He ensures man’s rule over other living things. He undertakes the appropriate exercise of human authority over the inhabited world. And he makes sure that the earth becomes filled through the spreading out of people throughout the earth.

From Adam and Eve and the Fall through the fall of the Tower of Babel, we can watch God implementing his intentions for his plan for mankind to be carried out . . . whether people respond in full obedience or not. And then we get to God’s call to Abraham, we find another fascinating piece of the plan.

The initial call comes in Genesis 12.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

Further details of this plan of God are reported a few chapters later.

Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly.” Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, “As for me, behold, my covenant is with you, and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:1-8)

What is so fascinating about this language is how it echoes God’s original instructions to Adam and Eve. Notice God’s part in all of this.

God is going to make Abraham exceedingly fruitful and will exceedingly multiply him. God is going to ensure he has descendants. God is going to make nations comes from Abraham to fill the earth. God is going to bless the world through Abraham.

God’s promises to Abraham are the final step in God’s active undertaken to ensure that his instructions to Adam and Eve will be carried out. And the rest of the Scriptures unfold how it is that God works out this plan to fill the planet with descendants of Adam and Eve and how, through one particular “seed” of Adam and Eve, one specific descendant of Abraham, God brings his intentions to fulfillment.

People will be fruitful and multiply. The earth will be filled. The inhabited world will be rightly subdued. And every living thing will be justly ruled. All through the descendants of Adam and Eve–enabled by one particular descendant, Jesus–just as God intended from the start.

We don’t get through half the first book of the Bible before we see God working in grace to bring about his intended ends for mankind. This is the God of grace. This is the God we meet in Jesus. This is the God who fills the Old Testament.

When God made Adam and Eve, he intended something. That is, in making mankind, he had something in mind. He wanted them to be involved in his plans and purposes on planet earth in a particular way. In his commission to them in Genesis 1:28, we hear a four-fold charge:

Be fruitful and multiply–increase in number

Fill the earth–spread out across the planet and inhabit it

Subdue it–exercise appropriate rule over the inhabited world

Rule over creatures–have mastery over all other living things

It doesn’t take Adam and Eve to drop the ball (to put it lightly!). A living creature enters the garden and they capitulate to that creature, the serpent. A few chapters later is becomes clear that the descendants of that first couple have failed to carry out another of God’s charges–they are not effectively subduing the inhabited world.

In each of these moments in time, as we watch the story unfold, God steps in to pick up the slack, to carry the responsibility for the carrying out of his initial commands. In grace he helps the people he has created to rule over creatures and then steps in to ensure that the earth is more properly subdued. (See the two previous posts on “What God Intended.”)

The next turn in the story (after the events surrounding Noah’s day) comes in Genesis 11. Apparently the children of Adam and Eve are taking to heart (to some degree) the first part of God’s original instructions, but they are not giving heed to the second part.

[All the people] said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

What are the people saying? “We don’t want to ‘fill the earth!’ We aren’t going to spread out to populate the whole earth. We’re going to stay right here.”

That’s not what God intended. That is not what he told them to do. He made it clear to Adam and Eve and then to Noah and his descendants that they were to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28; 9:1).

What is God’s response to the people’s unwillingness to give themselves to fulfilling God’s call? He steps in to make sure that what he intends to have happen happens.

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 9:5-8)

God takes responsibility for the filling of the whole earth. They wouldn’t do it, so he makes sure it will happen. God will have what he intended. God will ensure that what he calls for will happen. God is doing this because his original intention was and is good.

It is true that we can read the account of the tower of Babel as a sign of God’s judgment against the wrongful desires of the people. But we can also see the grace of God evident in his willingness to ensure what he wants for people will be carried out . . . by his own doing.

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