Tag Archives: Merit

“Oh Yeah. That’s One of Mine.”

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

One of the thematic threads I’ve observed throughout the Great Story is that the Spirit of God is not confined by the trappings of religion and its human penchant for systemic merit. Our human systems love things to fall into rigid rules and lawful order. Follow these rules, dress like this, talk like this, use these phrases, be seen doing these things, act like this when you’re in public, and everyone will know that you’re one of us.

Yet, as I’ve journeyed through the Great Story time-and-time-again I observe that there are those who follow the systemic rules on one hand while the whole time they are breaking the spirit of the law with the other. At the same time, there are those who don’t fit the meritorious religious system and its list of requirements, but who totally get the underlying Spirit that the system was trying to accomplish in the first place.

Then there is God accomplishing their purpose through the most unlikely character in the scene. The fool confounds the wise. The child shepherd kills the giant warrior. The least rises to rule over the greatest. The greatest enemy becomes the strongest ally.

Jesus channeled this theme over and over again. Perhaps the most challenging parable that Jesus taught was right at the climax of His teaching. He was getting down to the very core of his Message, and the leaders of the systemic religious order of merit would kill him for it. (See Matthew 25)

In the parable, Jesus divides everyone into two groups which He labels “sheep” and “goats”, but He might as well have labeled them “religious” and the “heathens.” Or, for the theme that Paul is addressing in today’s chapter, the “Jews” and the “Gentiles,” or perhaps it’s best labeled “God’s people” and “Those people.”

The first group looks like they belong to God’s flock because they look the part. They followed all the religious rules. They worked the system of merit for all it was worth. Jesus, however, says, “I never knew you” because while they followed the letter of the law on one hand, they ignored the heart of what the Law was supposed to create: love that looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

Then Jesus turns to “those people” who were never part of the religious system at all. They’d not earned one single merit badge from the meritorious order. Jesus says, “Come on in to my kingdom” because even while they were outside the religious “system” and didn’t follow the legal rules, they found the heart of God. They practiced the law of love. They looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

In today’s chapter Paul pushes into this theme big time. He’s writing to the followers of Jesus in Rom who fall into these two primary camps: Jews and Gentiles. From the Jews’ perspective it was the same systemic thought that Jesus had been dealing with. The Jewish believers saw it as “we God’s people” and “those people.” God’s people had been given “the Law” and had followed the religious meritorious order. The Gentiles, “those people,” were pagans, heathens, foreigners, and outsiders who had never been circumcised (merit badge #1) let alone practicing the exhaustive religious rulebook.

So, Paul picks up on Jesus’ theme and channels it as he begins his letter. The Gentile believers among Jesus’ followers, he’s basically arguing, are the goats in Jesus’ parable. They never had the rule book, the Law, yet they understood and obeyed the very heart of what the rulebook was designed to produce: love.

This morning I find myself challenged and taking a little heart inventory. Everyone knows that I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m one of the sheep and I make that abundantly clear in these posts. But, am I the sheep in Jesus’ parable? Am I looking all religious and righteous in these posts and then ignoring the very heart of what Jesus taught?

Ugh.

In the quiet I find myself asking who are the “goats” in my circles of influence? Who would my meritorious religious system tell me is one of “those people” but Jesus would look at that person’s heart and say, “Oh yeah. That’s one of mine.”?

(Not) Missing the Point

“…[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit….”
Titus 3:5 (NIV)

There is a fascinating and utterly critical matter lying beneath the structure of Paul’s letter to Titus in today’s chapter. It is essential to understanding God’s Message.

Our chapter begins with Paul instructing Titus to remind the followers of Jesus to be obedient and to do good:

  • Be subject to rulers
  • Be subject to authority
  • Be ready to do whatever is good
  • Slander no one
  • Be peaceable
  • Be considerate
  • Always be gentle

Here is a do-gooders laundry list. “Surely this is what God expects,” I can hear a heart whisper, “There’s no way. I’ve done too many awful things. I’m such a wretch. There’s no use trying. I could never be what God wants me to be.”

But we can’t stop with the list. The very next thing Paul does is remind Titus of what both of them were, in the past tense:

  • Foolish
  • Disobedient
  • Deceived
  • Enslaved to passions
  • Enslave to pleasures
  • Malicious
  • Envious
  • Hated by others
  • Hating others back

What a contrasting list. Here is a description most of us can identify with. We know the struggle against our own selves, our selfishness, foolishness, and out of control appetites. We know the shame of our own failures.

So, how do we get to the former list when our lives are described by the latter? Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s next words to Titus this way:

But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life!

Here is the crux of Jesus’ teaching, and what I believe is the most amazing piece of it. Gods acceptance isn’t the result of being a do-gooder and earning some kind of spiritual merit badge. We are accepted by God amidst of our ever present laundry list of failures simply by His mercy. We don’t become do gooders to earn God’s mercy. God’s mercy is poured out over us, because of what Jesus did on the cross and because of the empty tomb, so that our lives might be transformed. The transformation is not our doing; It’s God’s work in  and through us after simply accepting this amazing, gracious gift.

Today, I’m reminded that goodness is not a prerequisite of God saving me, but the result of God saving me. If I miss this truth, than I miss the entirety of Jesus’ teaching.

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Chapter-a-Day Mark 10

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The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” Mark 10:26-27 (NLT)

I believe that the most prevalent false notion I’ve witnessed thus far in my journey is that our salvation is somehow dependent on our goodness or badness.

It is a very human trait to ascribe reward to merit.  As children we are generally rewarded for doing our chores, getting good grades and keeping our noses clean. If we are bad, Santa Claus will give us a lump of coal, but if we are good he will give us a lot of presents under the tree. In extra-curricular activities we are rewarded when we work hard and display exceptional abilities. As adults we learn that if we do good work our employer will not only pay us, but might also give us a bonus. Conversely, our “bad” deeds may earn us fines and punishment.

How easy, then, to slip into the belief that the God of the Universe operates on the same human paradigm. If we are good we will go to heaven. If we are bad we will go to hell. So, we carefully consider our behavior and try to keep the “good” side of the ledger ahead of the “bad.” If we start getting a little concerned about how things will shake out, we begin to play the comparison game as if to prepare our case for admittance through the Pearly Gates. “Sure,” we say to ourselves, “I’m not perfect, but at least I didn’t kill millions of people like Hitler or swindle people out of their life savings like Bernie Madoff.”

Jesus made a few things abundantly clear in His teaching:

  1. We can’t avoid having enough check marks on the “bad” side of the ledger because our sinfulness is not a matter of our bad deeds but the condition of our hearts. Like a drop of food coloring in the cake batter, one drop of “bad” taints the entire being and renders us unacceptable to God. As Jesus put it, the person who shouts “you idiot” in anger is as guilty as the mass murderer in God’s economy.
  2. We can never be “good enough” to earn our way into heaven. No amount of good deeds can wipe away the sin that taints the very core of our being (see #1). Go ahead and try to keep a list if you want. It will never be long enough. Jesus said it himself. It is humanly impossible to enter God’s kingdom.

No lack of badness or amount of goodness can merit the entry fee to God’s kingdom. The only way to enter is by going directly to Jesus, who paid the entry fee for us when He died on the cross and took upon Himself the penalty for the “badness.” God loved us so much that He gave His one and only Son, so that whoever would simply believe in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.

And, that’s the true reason to be excited about Christmas.

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Chapter-a-Day Romans 14

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If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help. Romans 14:4b (MSG)

As I’ve walked the journey with many fellow believers of a wide range of theological persuasions, I’ve noticed a common issue in our interpersonal relationships. I now see the problem, though at one time I didn’t regard it as such. At one time I considered this nagging characteristic a badge of honor, and I see that many of my brothers and sisters continue to do so. I call it the “Junior Holy Spirit Badge.”

The Junior Holy Spirit badge is worn by those of us who believe it is our sworn duty to personally convict others of their wrong doing. Eyes like a hawk, we hold our favorite version of life’s rule book in one hand and our personal tally sheet in the other. Constantly aware of what others are doing around us, it is our sworn duty to get in their face, point out what they’re doing wrong, point to our dog-eared copy of the rule book and call them to step in line behind us. Where would God be if he didn’t have me, Junior Holy Spirit Badge emblazoned upon my chest, helping Him to daily separate the sheep from the goats? After all, how are people going to be convicted of their sin, if I don’t personally tell them they’re sinning?

I have a confession to make. Somewhere along journey I took off my Junior Holy Spirit Badge and threw it in the ditch along the road along with my tally sheet and personal rule book. I realized that God’s message never asked me to convict people of their sin, but over and over again commanded me to forgive them. I also realized as I read His Message that I’m supposed to share God’s good news, which is love, grace, forgiveness, restoration, redemption and life. I didn’t have time to share the good news when I was busy sharing with people the bad news about what awful, terrible, sinful things they were doing and how it was going to land them in a world of spiritual hurt if they didn’t follow my prescribed version of personal obedience to God. I got tired of convicting people. It left me with no energy to love them.

And, I don’t want a merit badge for convicting people, I want a merit badge for loving them.

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