Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lord Have Mercy!

Dear friends,

You know by now that I am a raving evangelical who can’t quite seem to shut up about God. I suppose some might even venture to call me a “Bible thumper” though I don’t think I’ve ever actually thumped one. (Well, maybe once or twice.) But it hasn’t always been so. Many years ago, I harbored great hostility and scorn toward pushy Christians and their precious little Bibles. One time my sister Barb and I were strolling along the aisles at the San Mateo, California county fair when we suddenly met some of them at a booth. They cornered us (at least it seemed that way then) and tried to explain about how we were sinners who needed a savior. I was more interested in finding the fudge booth (I still love chocolate!) and stomped away in disgust, while Barb, who hadn’t yet managed to pry herself away, looked at me helplessly. I fumed. Who did they think they were? Why didn’t they mind their own business? This was my continual attitude, not just one incident. I was “looking for a skylight in the floor of my upside down world” – but I did not want to concede that Christianity could be the truth.

About that time, my Aunt Fay in Pennsylvania, whom we hadn’t seen in quite some time, sent us a letter saying that she had become a born again Christian and urging us to do the same. I thought she was totally off her rocker. Crazy! And yet that summer, when our family drove all the way across the country for vacation, we met this crazy Christian. She was different all right. She had peace, joy, and love – and I didn’t! Even at that tender age of 12, I had often contemplated suicide. Yet when my cousin Cindy explained the gospel to me using some ridiculous looking Bible tracts, I contemplated the truth and grace of God instead. In July 1976 (our nation’s bicentennial anniversary of independence) I found my own true spiritual liberty and joined in with the crazy born again Christians. I have never ever regretted it. Since then I have always sought to share the incredible good news of Jesus Christ. I am in awe of such lavish mercy that makes my heart sing!

I know I talk a lot about God, but I realize that these bits and pieces don’t always communicate a full, balanced understanding of who he is and how we can know him. “God talk” is actually pretty popular these days. Spirituality is all the rage. Most of modern culture takes a smorgasbord approach to truth as a random collection of inspirational ideas that we are free to pick and choose to suit our cravings of the moment, rather than a revealed, universal, objective Truth that can stand the test of time and place no matter when or where we live. We do need to think and reason about truth. Yes, spiritual life also takes a leap of faith, but it is a leap onto a firm foundation. Truth matters, especially when we are seeking the right path to our eternal destiny.

So, I would like to take a few moments to share with you some basics about what it means to be “saved” or “born again.” It would take a lifetime to exhaust this topic and I don’t want your eyes to glaze over, so I’m still only giving you a small sample. If you aren’t familiar with this sort of discussion (or it even makes you uncomfortable), perhaps you could just read it to find out why all of those Christians (like me) are making such a big deal about it. And I hope in the process you might discover why it should be a big deal to you, too.

I like lists, so I’ll give you one right now with several key ideas:

1. God is utterly holy, pure and just. He will not tolerate the presence of sin. His thoughts are infinitely high above ours. He knows everything in our hearts. He is sovereign, all powerful over things and people. Our Creator is filled with incredible beauty and majesty and deserves our complete and humble worship. God is a trinity: three in one. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are completely unified and completely God. (Yes, this is an awesome mystery that boggles the human mind!)

2. Mankind is utterly sinful. We have repeatedly rejected God’s truth and God’s ways. We have each broken his commandments, either in our actions or in our thoughts. We have actively participated in ruin. We cannot make ourselves righteous by any amount of good deeds or by any amount of religious activity. We deserve God’s full measure of eternal wrath as punishment.

3. God is merciful and forgiving. He has made a way for us to cross the chasm. Jesus (God the Son) took on human form and lived an absolutely perfect, sinless life on earth. Then he was crucified on a cross, taking the punishment for our sins. He was buried and then rose again on the third day, appearing to hundreds of people before he ascended to Heaven. His resurrection proves his claim to be God the Son. Jesus was the promised Messiah, who had been foretold by the Old Testament prophets hundreds of years before his birth. (Read Isaiah 53!)

4. We can escape God’s righteous wrath and claim the promise of eternal life in Heaven only by trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus. That means confessing our sins and placing our full faith in him alone, not in being good enough or following some sort of religious system. He is our only hope. When we ask God to save us, our sins are forgiven and we are declared righteous in his sight.

5. When a person is born again like this, he or she becomes a “new creation” with a changed nature. We repent, which means to turn away from our sins and seek to please God instead. We realize that we are not our own anymore – we belong to God and must obey him with a whole heart. We still struggle with a sin nature and temptation, but we are also given a new heart that really wants to love God and other people. The good works that a Christian does are the grateful fruit of salvation, not the path to it. As disciples (followers of Christ) we continually grow in our faith and in our ability to make right choices, but we will not be perfect until we get to Heaven and see him face to face. And because we want others to experience the lavish mercy we have received, we boldly speak to them about sin, wrath, grace, faith, and salvation.

But why all this talk about God’s wrath and judgment? Can’t I just be tolerant and say that if anyone is sincere or tries their best to be a nice person that this is sufficient?

Good question! I’ve often asked it myself! Several months ago, in a philosophical mood, I decided to pick the theological brain of our friend Tom Clinkscale, who is a Baptist preacher and teaches at a Christian college. I asked him: "How do you reconcile the wrath of God that we see in the Old Testament with the mercy of God that we see in the New Testament?" I had put him on the spot, but he thought for a few minutes and then gave the wisest answer I have heard for that cosmic question. He replied that the one event in which God poured out his fiercest wrath was also the one where he poured out his most lavish mercy -- on the cross where Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. The cross bridges the chasm between Hell and Heaven for us. It transports us from fierce wrath to lavish mercy!

I have talked enough in my own words. Now I want to let God’s work speak to you in a way that I could never do. Pause to let it sink in!

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.” John 3:16-18

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64:6

“As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one… For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:10-12, 23

“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” James 2:10

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8-9

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” John 5:24

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Romans 5:6-11

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:17, 20-21

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:4-10

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” John 14:6

I will close with a poem that I wrote about two years ago, during a season of life when I became freshly aware of my sin and my continual need for my Savior.

Rhapsody in M
by Virginia Knowles

Myriad mercies:
more and more
merited? no! no merit in murky miserable me
manic malice meted on Messiah Martyr
Mighty and Meek
manic malice meted on my Mediator misses me
marvelous mercies ministered on me

Majestic Master:
master me
move massive mountains in me
make merry melodies in me
mirrors of Thee in mere me
more and more
myriad mercies


That’s enough for now. Let me know what you think. I’d be happy to talk to you about this if you send me an e-mail. Feel free to share this with others.

Virginia Knowles

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