by John Hendryx
“…every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of lights…”
As Christians, especially when we lose sight of the gospel, we are still tempted to be filled (and thus blinded) with a sense of our own goodness, such that, genuine community remains elusive. Self-righteousness and self-sufficiency disables our love to others and painfully robs us of any sense of community. Christian brothers fight and are envious (James 4:1-10) because we easily forget that it is the grace and mercy of God in Christ alone that we are what we are. Oh, if those of us who confessed Christ were humbled under the corruption of our own hearts, how merciful, how tender and how charitable we would be to others. We would forbear and forgive, not censuring or striving but would be eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. If we would simply gain a better understanding of the sinfulness of our own hearts and it’s bent on evil in light of God’s majesty, we would trust less in our own judgments. If we spent more time digesting the truth that God, not because of some potential He saw in us, but in spite of ourselves, chose us for no other reason than His love alone, it would begin to enlarge our hearts and lead to compassion toward others because we would see them, not from above, but as broken, sinful people, just as we are. Although modern psychology seems to be obsessed with our self-esteem, the fact is that when we think we are good compared to others we become self-centered and grow increasingly difficult to live with. Too much self-love is actually community-destroying behavior. The better we think we are, the smaller our heart becomes. But Christ would have us “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than [our]selves; … not merely look[ing] out for [our] own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”(Phil 2) If we would but continually place before ourselves our own desperate spiritual need who owes a debt that only Jesus can repay, we would start to be more willing to move out toward others with encouragement, patience and a helping hand.
Therefore, in what may seem counter-intuitive to some, we believe a robust and biblical understanding of predestination is foundational to genuine Christian community. Grace presupposes, and is inseparable from, the doctrine of predestination. “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.” (John 3:27). The Apostle Paul wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians, and starts out with the following statement about the grace we have in Christ as a theological basis for unity and community in the Church:
“In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”(Eph 1: 5.6)
Please notice a few things here:
1) Predestination is the result of His unconditional love for us in Christ,
2) It is according to His sovereign good will, and finally…
3) It is to the praise of his glorious grace.
Focus in on #3: Predestination is the praise of what? His glorious grace, the text says. How is that? Since salvation is completely dependent upon God's initiative, not ours, and since he carries it out from beginning to end, our predestination in Christ glories in the grace of God alone (not our will, works or merit) for our salvation (John 1:13, Rom 9:16). For even the good will to believe the gospel is seen as God’s gracious gift to us (John 6:63,65; Rom 9:16). The recurring theme throughout the Bible is that ‘Salvation is of the Lord’. It is by the grace procured by Christ, plus nothing, that we are in Him and not because of something, merit or otherwise natural inclination in any of us that He chooses us.
“…but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong ... so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, "LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD." (1 Corinthians 1:27-31)
It is the grace of God in Christ itself that we even have the wisdom, will, desire and the faith to believe the gospel (John 6:63-65). We obviously do not thank ourselves for our faith but we thank God for it (1 Thess 1:13), because even this is part of the redemptive blessings He has purchased for us in Christ (Eph 1:3). Churches which teach that we must have faith apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit have dangerously left an opening for the human ego to boast. Although it may not be said openly, it leaves the feeling that we are better than outsiders because we had the wisdom and wherewithal to believe. But when our eyes become opened to the biblical/Reformation truth that salvation is all of grace and none of us, it leaves no room for any boasting.
In Ephesians chapter 4 the Apostle Paul stresses Christian community in light of the previous three chapters of doctrine. Paul starts out with a “therefore” meaning “in light of everything I just said…”. Considering the doctrinal foundations, Paul says, this is how you should live in community. In other words, he explains that, in light of the fact of our Predestination and adoption in Christ, we should therefore, with all humility and gentleness and patience, preserve unity in the church. He affirms that God grants every person different spiritual gifts, not so that we might envy one another, but to equip the saints for works of service in the building up of the body in love as each part does its work. He instructs them in this, he says, for the unity in the faith in the knowledge of Christ so we may mature and no longer be deceived by false doctrine (Eph 4:14).
When churches avoid teaching Christ’s elective love it causes many foundational errors. This may be why we see some churches over-emphasize politics to the point that it appears they believe that any new law added in our favor would is equated with an advancement for the kingdom of God, and any defeat, a loss. As such they use morality as a political weapon and desire for power rather than considering our true mandate that Christ gave us, which is to win the hearts of people through the persuasion of the gospel and to make disciples. Jesus lived under a tyrannical government but did not see political overthrow or even outward reform as part of His mission. Though no doubt he would have voted his conscience and urged us to do likewise, yet the Kingdom of God - the reign of Christ in the hearts of men, was His true concern. History is filled with examples in nations where the Kingdom of God has advanced significantly which have imposed outward oppressive laws against it. Jesus knew that outward subservience to a law would not save anyone, only a changed heart. As Christians we need to plead with unbelievers to be reconciled to God, for Christ is coming with his armies to trample down his enemies in the winepress of the fury of the Lord God almighty. But He graciously proclaims forgiveness in advance to those who surrender to His terms of peace. All are subject to the wrath of God and justly deserve it, including me and you. It is His mercy alone that we are delivered from our bondage to sin and this understanding of the gospel is foundational to the kind of humility genuine community needs to function as God meant it to. So when you see your brother sin, do you feel like a better Christian than he or do you come along side him to help as a fellow sinner needing mercy, just as he does? Of course if a person continues in his rebellion the most loving thing to do is to exercise church discipline, but that is because you love him, not because you feel morally superior.
Though we do not wish to admit this very often, most of us seriously lack humility. And this erroneous belief in our own inherent moral superiority is often based on the thinking that we would not do anything as bad as those sinners out there and therefore we must be better than they are. But when we do this we may unwittingly affirm ourselves to be sufficient in ourselves rather than needing anything Jesus has to offer. But when we daily see ourselves and the recipients of mercy, we then can view the church as worldwide communities of broken sinners who can boast only in the radical mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ: communities that renounce all self-sufficiency as we herald a message of mercy and freedom in Jesus Christ. We then can restore others to community since we ourselves are being restored.
Take responsibility that you deserve only God’s justice. As you do this it will have the effect of enlarging our hearts toward others because we no longer can feel superior to them. We’re not. When we view ourselves as we truly are before a holy God … sinners saved for no other reason than God’s sovereign good pleasure, then we walk on an equal plane as others and this is a basis for Christian unity. Remind yourselves of this daily. It is not our morality, our superior theology or even our faith that makes us differ from others before God, but it is the grace of God in Christ alone that we are what we are. It is grace and nothing else that makes us to differ; and it is when we see the grace of Jesus, not our performance, that our cold unloving hearts finally begin to thaw. If we think we are better than any outsiders (including pagans) because we are now Christians, perhaps we have entirely missed the point of the gospel. We all continue to need Christ’s mercy, and because it is mercy it means none of us were deserving of it. So only in the electing love of Christ do we begin to fully see ourselves for who we really are: spiritually bankrupt without Christ.
As our local churches begin to robustly proclaim God’s electing grace in Christ, the Spirit begins to form our understanding and practice such that we are finally ready to reach out to others and help, for the right reason. Not for fear, not for jealousy, not to earn points with God, but because apart from Christ we can do nothing and we delight in the new heart He has given us for Him and one another. Remember, if our salvation has anything to do with us, even a small trifle, then we have something to boast over others, but if we were adopted in Christ before the foundation of the world, as the Scripture plainly affirms (Eph 1:3-5), then we are stripped of all such self-elevating thoughts. Self becomes crowded out and only Christ fills our vision. Jesus’ harshest criticism was directed toward those who thought too highly of themselves, and his grace toward those who acknowledged their spiritual poverty. A note of caution here: the deceitfulness of sin can even slip in if we are correct in our theology as well. We may boast over others who do not have OUR understanding. But remember, even a right understanding of God’s grace is itself God’s gracious gift, and remembering this can help greatly as we approach others with God’s word. Do not hijack good theology and use it as a club but persuade men with gentleness and respect, for only God can change people’s understanding in His own time, as He did with you. This truth of God’s grace must be applied to everything we have so that our pride does not have any opportunity to reappear.
Therefore, instead of seeing the ugliness in others as something to judge and complain about, see it, rather, as an opportunity for God to use you in his redemptive plan in their lives. Jesus looked beyond people’s sin and infirmities and saw them as an opportunity for God’s work in people. When Jesus saw the man blind from birth, for instance, the disciples debated whether he or his parents’ sin were the cause but Jesus saw it, rather, as an opportunity to for a work of God to be displayed in his life. May God grant that our local churches would yield in the fear of God to serve one another and build our communities, by God’s grace, in light of the radical nature of our salvation in Christ by grace alone.