Grace Works

Grace Works

Grace Works

Church in Fusagasugá, Cundinamarca, Colombia

It was 10:00 a.m. — time for the Sunday services in a tiny church in Fusagasugá, Cundinamarca, Colombia, yet only a handful of people were gathered to sing worship songs, pray, hear a sermon, and enjoy a bit of bread and coffee or aromatica (a fruity-flavored tea) and fellowship afterward. My Dad, John Dean, who is also the pastor of this church, explained to me that the service was scheduled at 10:00 a.m., Colombian time, that is, the people in Columbia aren’t too concerned about being on time. Slowly but surely people arrived, and eventually the music began. I did my best to sing along with the Spanish lyrics, but found myself sort of mumbling here and there, and constantly lagging behind. During the one song with a verse in English, I sang with confidence while the people around me did their best to stay in time.

The sermon began with a chart displayed on the overhead projector entitled, Escala de Division de La Ira, or The Division of Anger Scale. The chart was divided into four categories: Healthy, Mild, Serious, and Extreme. How much anger is too much? With healthy anger, you are calm and happy most of the time. You get frustrated sometimes, but it doesn’t last. With mild anger, you are not a happy as you want to be. You feel irritated and frustrated often. With serious anger you are irritated most of the time, and with extreme anger, you are always angry about something. The chart was much more detailed than my synopsis, but you get the point.

Sermon Notes and Some Commentary

Since this sermon was given in English and then translated into Spanish, I had a nice healthy pause to work with after every few sentences, which made taking notes a breeze. So although I can’t link to a video of the sermon, I can say with a great deal of confidence, that it is an accurate although incomplete recounting. The main text for the sermon was Philippians 2:12-13. Here are my notes on the sermon content:

How do you express your anger? (The people in the congregation took turns answering this question. Their answers ranged from cussing, to telling people to stay out of their way, to hiding their anger inside.)

Sometimes God gets angry. We are created in God’s image, so we also get angry. God does not sin when He gets angry.

Jesus was angry in John 2:15. Jesus, who was normally very tranquil was not in this situation. There was no sin, because it was righteous anger.

Anger is not sin when it is something that would get God angry. It is not a sin to be mad at the government when they abuse their power. You have a right to be angry about abortion. You can be angry when someone steals from you. Sinful anger, however, is jealous, prideful, or with selfish reasons.

God has every right to be angry with us, but because He loves us, Jesus came to take care of God’s righteous anger.

Think of all the times God has forgiven you. If God can turn His anger from you, you can forgive others. Do you want God to withhold forgiveness from you? No. You should not withhold forgiveness from others. (See Isaiah 12:1.)

Unlike the sound proofed, dark, theater-like churches in the United States, the doors of this church were left wide open and the light and city noise were constant backdrop to the sermon. Cars honked and backfired. There was a rooster crowing nearby. A dog across the street barked at passersby.

God puts away His anger and gives comfort. Ephesians. Be kind to one another. Can you be angry and forgive at the same time?

Proverbs 21:19. This verse is for men, too. Don’t have that kind of anger in your house. Don’t be angry to this extreme level, because when you calm down, you will look back with regret that you said things you didn’t mean. With this kind of anger,  you create an entirely new set of problems on top of the one that triggered your anger.

No one likes to be around an angry person. This is especially important between a man and wife. It’s ok to show anger. If you hold it inside, then there will be resentment. But extreme anger is different. Children are scared when their parents have extreme anger.

So that, my beloved, as ye always obey, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, with fear and trembling your own salvation work out, for God it is who is working in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” Philippians 2:12-13.

Let the Spirit teach us clearly. Know the context when you are studying scripture. It’s important. Who writes? Who is the audience? How should it be interpreted in the geographical and historical context? These two verses appear to say two different things. They have provided comfort and also caused confusion. Great people like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Edwards have wrestled with these verses. Scottish theologian, Deidrich Bonhoffer, entitled these verses a “paradox of grace.”

The gospel is expressed in these two verses. Salvation is a gift and a task. If you study carefully, you will see this elsewhere in Scripture. Ephesians 2:8-9. James 2:18.

It this point, the red flag had been hoisted in my head. Was he preaching that you had to earn salvation? I wondered. I continued taking notes…

Faith or works? This is a paradox. The gift is all God’s doing. You cannot earn salvation. We, on the other hand, have a role to play in our own salvation.

In the time of the early church, Pelagius taught salvation is earned, and that we are responsible to get saved. Augustus held an opposing view of salvation, that it is all God’s doing. He saves us with no contribution from us. Martin Luther had a dispute with the Catholic church. He said we are justified by faith. The debate goes on today. Is it all God? Is it all man? Calvinists and Arminians are divided on this.

The answer, according to Pastor John Dean, is somewhere in the middle. “Look at the context, he said. I continue writing, at times word for word, at times paraphrasing what he says…

Who is Paul writing to? Believers in Philippi. Paul is not talking about initial conversion, he’s writing to people who are saved, writing about maintaining a good relationship with God. The works you do demonstrate your faith in God.

We Baptists tend to specialize in salvation. We know about this. We know we can’t be saved by works. Sometimes Baptists get confused at our role after salvation. Our role is to maintain a healthy relationship with God.

The paradox is “work out your own salvation” and “God is at work in you.” You continue a task to bring it to completion. God provides the ability and the energy.

We are not being micromanaged by God. We have responsibility to maintain a good relationship with Him. He helps us by equipping us. Grace is free. We can’t increase God’s grace to us. Many people think they need to earn God’s grace. Look at the Catholic sacraments, an incorrect idea of how to get more grace from God.

Baptists sometimes think if they give money or volunteer, then they get more grace from God. God gives all the grace we need for a good relationship with him.

Grace if free. But grace is costly. What does this mean? Grace is free to you and me – it is not free to God. Grace comes at Christ’s expense.

We can have abundant life now, but it comes at a price to Christ. God had to give His Son to make grace possible for you and me. “Cheap grace” – when we have lazy spirituality.

When we as believers do good works, we are not trying to earn grace. We are performing an act of gratitude to God.

A relationship takes maintenance. Both parties work together over time to develop the relationship. God doesn’t impose relationships. The relationship becomes weak when we don’t develop it.

At this point, he gives an illustration to demonstrate something that he calls “grace blockers.”

Imagine water coming out of a hose. When the hose is bent, the water is still there, but the benefit of receiving the water is blocked. Similarly, God’s grace is there for us. Wrong attitudes, bad habits, neglect of spiritual blessings, and the like block the benefits of God’s grace.

With the help of God’s Holy Spirit, God removes these grace blockers.

Do you have grace blockers? God will help you to work them out, just like Paul said. Work out your salvation.

If you know Christ, this is an opportunity to eliminate grace blockers. If you don’t know Christ, please accept Him today. Grace is free to you, too. God is showing His grace to you.

Additional Sermon Notes

Although this was the end of the sermon, I did get an extra bit from my Dad later, when I asked him to give me the scripture references (they were given in Spanish by both my Dad and his translator, Johanna). He wrote something included in his sermon notes but not in the sermon itself:

Law demands. Grace gives. Law extracts. Grace bestows. Law says, “Do.” Grace says, “Believe.” Law says, “Work.” Grace says, “Rest.” Law threatens, pronouncing a curse. Grace entreats, announcing a blessing. Law says, “Do, and you will live.” Grace says, “Live, and you shall do.” Law condemns the best man. Grace will save the worst man. (J. Vernon McGee)

My Thoughts on the Sermon

The first part of the sermon deals with anger, but the second part of the sermon deals with the role of works in salvation. I have been somewhat puzzled about what the first part has to do with the second part, except, perhaps, that it is easier to let go of anger when you forgive the way God forgives, and it is easier to give grace to others when you are, yourself, basking in the grace of God. I also got mixed messages from this sermon. For example, he says, “Salvation is a gift and a task.” Since a task is “a definite piece of work assigned to, falling to, or expected of aperson; duty,” it stands to reason that he is saying salvation involves work. But he also says, “You cannot earn salvation.”

I think the disconnect has more to do with two different ideas about what salvation is. Is salvation something that happens all at once, like a permanent stamp on one’s forehead that says “Redeemed”? Is salvation a relationship with God that must be nurtured — a “use it or lose it” kind of thing?

Personally, I think that salvation is redemption (being saved from sin and death) and reconciliation (becoming friendly again after a disagreement, no longer enemies) to God. It was set into motion even before God created the universe, is accomplished in Christ once and for all, and will be brought to fruition at just the right time — God’s divine appointment with humanity. God chose some people to believe this before other people believe this. Why? Because He has decided some of us should be able to admire His Plan as it unfolds — to be in on the secret, so to speak, to marvel in His power that accomplishes His will, and to join Him in doing good things along the way. The Apostle Paul understood this. That’s why he prayed for the eyes of people who were already believers to believe something more. He wrote to believers in Ephesus (emphasis mine),

Grace to you, and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ! Blessed [is] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who did bless us in every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, according as He did choose us in him before the foundation of the world, for our being holy and unblemished before Him, in love, having foreordained us to the adoption of sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, in which He did make us accepted in the beloved, in whom we have the redemption through his blood, the remission of the trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, in which He did abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the secret of His will, according to His good pleasure, that He purposed in Himself, in regard to the dispensation of the fulness of the times, to bring into one the whole in the Christ, both the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth — in him; in whom also we did obtain an inheritance, being foreordained according to the purpose of Him who the all things is working according to the counsel of His will, for our being to the praise of His glory, [even] those who did first hope in the Christ, in whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth — the good news of your salvation — in whom also having believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of the promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance, to the redemption of the acquired possession, to the praise of His glory. Because of this I also, having heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and the love to all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of the glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the recognition of him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened, for your knowing what is the hope of His calling, and what the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what the exceeding greatness of His power to us who are believing, according to the working of the power of His might, which He wrought in the Christ, having raised him out of the dead, and did set [him] at His right hand in the heavenly [places], far above all principality, and authority, and might, and lordship, and every name named, not only in this age, but also in the coming one; and all things He did put under his feet, and did give him — head over all things to the assembly, which is his body, the fulness of Him who is filling the all in all, also you — being dead in the trespasses and the sins, in which once ye did walk according to the age of this world, according to the ruler of the authority of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all did walk once in the desires of our flesh, doing the wishes of the flesh and of the thoughts, and were by nature children of wrath — as also the othersand God, being rich in kindness, because of His great love with which He loved us, even being dead in the trespasses, did make us to live together with the Christ, (by grace ye are having been saved,) and did raise [us] up together, and did seat [us] together in the heavenly [places] in Christ Jesus, that He might show, in the ages that are coming, the exceeding riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus, for by grace ye are having been saved, through faith, and this not of you — of God the gift, not of works, that no one may boast; for of Him we are workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God did before prepare, that in them we may walk.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair if I were to neglect to point out that God’s grace, as it is presented in my Dad’s sermon, is a lot more limited than it seems. In light of eternal torment, the doctrine Baptists subscribe to, God’s grace toward unbelievers ends at the moment of death. This has been a major complaint in almost every other sermon review I’ve written. According to this doctrine, God’s grace is lavished upon us, so long as our hearts beat. When a not-yet-believer’s heart stops, God’s wrath kicks in and never, ever, ends.

One easy way to see the fallacy of this doctrine is to consider human behavior in comparison to God’s supposed behavior. If humans who are angry at other humans lock those other humans in a dark place for a long period of time, completely ignoring their cries for mercy or even just a little sip of water, we say those captors are immoral and that their behavior is illegal. A sermon about anger, with no mention of God’s supposed eternal, and by human standards, immoral and illegal anger, is a conveniently incomplete sermon.

However, the major takeaway is that the spirit of this sermon was that of grace – an invitation to believe in God’s generous grace or to experience a more deepened relationship with God as you receive His generous grace in your day to day living. If you close your eyes and hold your nose to the ever-looming but rarely mentioned Baptist eternal torment doctrine, this sermon might warm your heart and encourage you.

Related: Willing to Believe, Paul Tells Calvin and Arminius the Way It Is, Just Believe Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

 

And here’s something my son, Seth, wrote about anger:

All things are causes and effects. Anger is no different. Anger is caused by obstruction to pursuit. Anger is a force much like fire, where a spark can lead to great flame; a small cause with a grand effect. We also know that fire is destructive, yet useful. What is useful in this context? We would need to create a theory of morality. Useful anger in this context is anger which is justifiable. Justification is based off of morality. So, right away we have come to the first understanding of anger: anger can only be justified through morality. What defines morality? We probably don’t know that yet. So what goals then could possibly distinguish justifiable anger from unjustifiable? If your goal is to solve a formula, and you need the value of a particular variable, the primary goal becomes the pursuit of the definition of the variable. In our situation, the variable is a moral code, and the formula, if solved, provides whether the anger was justified. But wait. It seems as though we have actually just defined a virtuous goal: the pursuit of the nature of morality. If an obstacle is in the way of this goal, would anger not be justified? Wouldn’t it in fact be the only justifiable anger?

Comments
  • Mary Vanderplas May 19, 2017 at 6:20 am

    I like what he says about how we express our anger being the issue. Anger is a normal human emotion – a response to a perceived or actual wrong or evil. The issue isn’t whether anger itself is good or bad, justified or unjustified. Rather, it’s how we deal with it – whether in healthy ways by addressing the cause, speaking out against the injustice, working for justice, forgiving the offender, eschewing revenge-seeking and bitterness and returning good for evil, etc., or in unhealthy ways by letting it grow and fester and manifest itself in sinful, destructive behaviors.

    I am reluctant to compare our anger to God’s simply because I think God’s anger, God’s wrath toward us, is always an expression of God’s love. God’s anger and punishment of human disobedience are always for the sake of restoration, of calling us back to our true humanity. The same cannot be said of human anger, which too often is focused on our right to be angry and on the offending party getting their just desserts (or being spared from getting what they deserve). Human anger, in other words, often doesn’t have the loving dimension than God’s anger and justice have. I like what he says about our ability and obligation to forgive as those who know that we have been forgiven. I don’t agree, though, with the assertion that “Jesus came to take care of God’s righteous anger.” Jesus is not the one sent to satisfy God’s justice so that God can accept us. In Jesus, God satisfied his judgment against us by taking it on himself. There is no division between God and Jesus. In Jesus God was expressing his loving justice.

    I don’t disagree with what he says about the Christian life being, paradoxically, wholly God’s work and wholly our work. Paul makes clear in this text and in others that we have a responsibility when it comes to the experience of our salvation, that we can’t just sit back and expect God to transform us without our active participation. I don’t hear the pastor saying here that it’s a matter of use it or lose it in terms of one’s eternal destiny. What I hear him saying is that if we want to be the persons God has created us to be and to enjoy the fruits of our salvation here and now, we have to do something – namely, to embody the mind of Christ in our daily living.

    I agree with your point that a sermon on anger and grace by one who subscribes to the doctrine of eternal torment that doesn’t mention the limit to God’s grace (as seen in the eternal damnation of those who don’t accept his grace in this life) is less than honest and complete. I’m guessing that he’s much like the preacher you referred to in your blog “Accidental Church” – avoiding this unpopular, loathsome doctrine for one of the reasons you mentioned there.

    Thanks for sharing your dad’s sermon. Even if the sermon seemed somewhat disjointed, he said some good things about dealing with anger and about God’s unearned gift and our response to it.

  • Alice Spicer May 19, 2017 at 11:17 pm

    I would agree with your comments on “Jesus came to take care of God’s righteous anger” if it were not from my own conversion experience. I knew God was angry with me. But at the same time, I also knew, because of His love demonstrated through Christ’s sacrifice, that His anger was for my own good and the good of others who experienced consequences because of my selfish choices. But this idea that Jesus came to save us from the Father also doesn’t jive with me. After all, the Father sent the Son into the world because of His love for us.

    Yes, the sermon did remind me of Accidental Church. The difference is that my Dad’s church (which is technically a mission of Westwood Missionary Baptist Church in Winter Haven, FL) doesn’t have a website with a What We Believe section. Westwood has a website, but there is no What We Believe section there either. I think it would be incredibly cool if they did that on purpose, so as to include people of faith with different views. I doubt it, if push came to shove, that that would be the case, but who knows…

    • Mary Vanderplas May 20, 2017 at 6:45 am

      I don’t disagree that God is angry with us because of our sin. But the reason he’s angry is that he cares about us. His love for us causes him to condemn and punish our disobedience rather than let us get by with it and all of the havoc it wreaks in our own lives and in the lives of others. It’s like the tough discipline of a parent who loves her child too much to let her get by with disobeying rules given for her good. The anger of God is deeply personal and fundamentally loving. It is not some impersonal reaction to a standard of righteousness being violated, much less a case of God hating and acting to wipe out those who rebel against God’s laws and commandments. God is not a hostile deity whose wrath against sinful human beings needs to be appeased. Rather, he’s a loving God who takes upon himself the death sentence that our sin deserves so as to the end the alienation from God and others and our true selves that our disobedience causes.

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