Series: Foundations in Grace -- home
Last week I spoke about the New Covenant of grace and how it needed to replace the Old Covenant of law and punishment. The Old Covenant was God’s convenant. He made it and there’s nothing wrong with it, except that it just doesn’t work for sinful people. We are not fit to keep our end of the Old Covenant, so it simply had to be replaced if God was going to have communion with us and be intimate with us. There needed to be a new kind of covenant that did not depend on us keeping our end of it.
So to find a way to relate to us, God sent his only boy as a man to keep mankind’s end of the covenant for us. The covenant has to be kept at our end, and Jesus the man kept the covenant for us one hundred percent, to the nth degree.
The problem with the Old Covenant was the we didn’t keep our end. The beauty and the power of the New Covenant is that our end is kept for us in Jesus. Jesus loved God and loved man to the bitter end, and completed all of God’s requirements for humanity on our behalf.
Now all of Jesus’ performance is credited to us. It’s like his “A”s go on our report card. We don’t know how to worship, but Jesus worships perfectly. That’s what we’re counting on. We don’t know how to pray, but Jesus knows how to pray. He’s prayed for us and his prayers are credited to us. We don’t know how to obey, to serve, to love – we don’t know how to forgive our enemies perfectly, but he has done it perfectly for us, and that is credited to us.
Now there is no condemnation, none. Not now, not ever. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
The power of the New Covenant is first of all that Jesus kept it for us, and now it is kept for us in heaven. You can’t break the New Covenant. That’s real good news! No matter how badly you mess up a day, you cannot break the New Covenant, because it is kept out of harm’s way in heaven at the right hand of God the Father.
Secondly, not only has God kept the New Covenant for us in Jesus at our end, but even more, he empowers us to live up to the covenant requirements that have been kept for us. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul explains that we have been caused to be competent ministers of a New Covenant. The Old Covenant was a law written on stone; the New Covenant has been vectored into our hearts. We’ve undergone a spiritual genetic code change, and now we hunger for things we didn’t hunger for before. And we have the capacity to do something about those longings.
Why did God give us a desire for rightness, to love in the face of opposition, to forgive people who don’t deserve to be forgiven? Why did he give us those desires – just to mock us? Just to show us that we’re worthless worms and that we’ll never measure up? No, he gave us those desires because he plans to fulfill them in our real experience.
The New Covenant is not external. It is objective – Jesus has kept it for us – but it is also internal. God’s bidding is also his enabling. We are empowered to do what he has called us to do and what Christ has already done for us.
The New Covenant gives us the two things we want most in life. Number one – acceptance. We don’t want to have to jump through anybody’s hoops to be accepted by them. God accepts us without our jumping through any hoops. We are accepted just as we are. Paradoxically, nobody wants to stay the way they are. Everybody wants to change, everybody wants to get better than they are.
The New Covenant is the power to change. I promised you four weeks ago that within a month you would experience the power to change, and would find your lives thrown into a crisis. You would find that the moorings were shifting underneath you and the old patterns were breaking up. You would be changing, and it would be painful for a while, but it would get good. How many know that that’s what’s happening to you?
Look around. That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. The good news is supposed to alter you, change you, move you from where you are to something better.
The question arises, if we have been accepted just as we are, then why work? Why pick up our crosses and follow Jesus? Why work out our salvation with fear and trembling? Why do we strive to live up to a standard of life that has already been lived for us and has been credited to us?
Look at 1 Corinthians 15:9-10. Paul knows that he disqualified himself by persecuting the church. He wasn’t good enough for God. “But by the grace of God, I am what I am – I got this all free. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. I am the great apostle Paul by the grace of God. But that grace was not without effect in me. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was within me.”
Paul understood the radical free nature of grace, and he worked harder than anybody else. He says, “God’s grace had it’s effect on me.” It’s as if a deeper appreciation of grace inspires hard work, and empowers you to pick up your cross and follow Jesus and carry the ministry of the kingdom of God into the world.
What is it about grace that causes us to work hard for God, and causes that work to be joyous, and a free offering and a free gift to God? Here are three good reasons for, in light of grace, working hard – participating in the ministry of God, and doing it with discipline and with joy.
The first reason is that you just love the person who loves you. Jesus has loved us, so we love him back. If you take the religious garbage off the gospel and people see how free they are and how totally God has accepted them and loved them, and what a wonderful life he has planned out for them as they cooperate, they will just love him back. The reason people don’t love God more is because they haven’t seen that yet.
Paul said it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance and good works (Romans 2:4). The threat of law and punishment never worked to make them obedient or to love God. If it did, there would have been no need for the New Covenant. Look at the history of Israel. Look at the history of the church today. Preaching law just doesn’t work to release joy, gratitude and hard work in people.
People sometimes come up to me saying, “If God accepts us just the way we are, and there is nothing we can do to make him accept us more, and there is nothing we can do to make him accept us less, doesn’t that make for some undisciplined people a very dangerous situation? Ought we not to have just a little bit of law hanging over people’s heads, to keep undisciplined people in line?” It’s as if there were two gospels. There is the gospel of free grace, and there is the gospel of conditional grace for people who need that.
I have three answers. Firstly, to make God’s unconditional grace conditional may have some merits and be expedient. But understand this – it it not the New Testament. For better or for worse, God said it’s free, and it’s here to make you free – so free that nobody can manipulate you. And so having some threat of punishment hanging over people might be good for controlling them, but it is not the gospel. God just takes his chances with the free lavish pouring out of his grace. It’s that or it’s nothing. You either have the gospel or you have condemnation. It’s one or it’s the other.
Another answer is to say, “Thank you for criticizing me for making grace too free. Paul was criticized for the same thing, so I feel in good company.”
The third thing I say is, “Here’s what you are suggesting. You are suggesting that reflecting on how much God loves you is going to make you a bad person.” Reflecting on and believing that God has loved us and that we were in bondage and now we are free, we were in darkness and we are now light, and we experience the power to change in our lives, and it’s all free, we don’t have to pay him back for it and we can’t if we tried – is that going to make you a worse person? That’s crazy. I’ve never seen it work that way for anybody.
The way it really works is that love begets love. You will do things for love that you would never do out of being threatened, or out of duty. Here is why we work hard in the kingdom of God: the King has loved us. He has loved us to the fullest extent – giving up his only boy so that he could have us home with him. The greatest reason why we don’t fully love God is not that we are bad people, but because the full love of God has not yet dawned on us.
The second motivation to work hard in the kingdom of God in light of his grace is that it’s just plain enjoyable for the most part. I had a full blown pagan life, full of travel and what the world calls pleasure and excitement, and all I can say is, that was nothing. There is not anything about that old life that I miss. Not because I’m so righteous or pure, but because it has been replaced with something so much better.
In my opinion, the ministry of Jesus Christ is just so much more enjoyable than anything else. I thoroughly enjoy seeing people being converted and their lives changed. I just like it.
I love the effect that preaching the good news has on people. I think healing the sick is just a lot of fun. Dealing with demons themselves is not that much fun, but the effect that it has on people is too salutary to regret. It is one of the most gratifying ministries there is. I love watching marriages get healed. I love watching families come back together. I like feeding the hungry. I love watching my children learning to serve. Working hard for God is sometimes little more than enlightened self-interest.
The third reason is this. One of the primary motives for working hard for God and giving freely to God is for the rewards of doing so. If the Bible is anything to go on, God wants us to work for him, advancing his kingdom, with his rewarding us in mind. You can’t work for acceptance – that’s given to you freely in Jesus Christ, and there is no work involved in that at all. But you do work for rewards.
Look at Revelation 22:12. God has said just about everything he wanted to say, and at the end of everything, he leaves us with this: “Behold, I am coming soon. My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am telling you this ahead of time so you can get to work now, because I am going to reward you in light of what you have done when I come back.” 1 Corinthians 3:10 says, “If what he builds survives, he will receive a reward.”
It is another grace for God to give us this opportunity. I don’t know about you, but my heart is so full, I want a truckload of stuff. And I think now the reason I work as hard as I do is to get that truckload of stuff for him.
Our good works need not be heroic. It’s so wonderful – Jesus said, “If you give a cup of cold water in my name you will not lose your reward.” When the widow gave two little coins, Jesus said, “This will be remembered. This deserves a reward.” It doesn’t even need to be a truckload. It can be something so simple, so insignificant in our eyes or in the eyes of the world. But if it is done for Jesus, it’s precious stones, it’s gold and silver.
For the most part, ministry for me seems to be enjoyable. But when the going gets rough, when there are aspects of the ministry that aren’t enjoyable, do you know what gets us through? The anticipation of rewards.
Look at 2 Corinthians 4:16. What is seen is temporary, but the rewards that are unseen are forever. In the midst of pain, one of the things that motivated Paul was looking at the reward on the other side of it. And if you think that sounds unspiritual, Jesus did exactly the same thing (Hebrews 12:2-3).
So when your work for the Lord isn’t inspired by great overwhelming love for God’s grace for you, and it isn’t inspired because it’s just plain enjoyable, then look to the rewards. That’s entirely Biblical and right, and God exhorts us to do this.
But tragically enough, none of these things is what motivates most “Christian” work that is done in the church today. Much of what Christians do for God is because of what people might think if they don’t. I hope that you understand that I’m doing everything I can to take that pressure off you around here.
For example, most Christians believe that Bible reading and prayer are necessary for the Christian life. And because of some teaching, the “quiet time” has become a kind of duty that sounds a whole lot like the law of the Old Covenant. And people come under that. If they go a few days without praying or reading the Bible, they feel guilty. And in order to deal with this guilt, every new year, they have a brand new fresh diary in front of them, they buy a brand new Bible, and they say, “OK, I’m going to read this from beginning to end.”
I’ve done this probably a dozen times in the last twenty years. And by the end of February, you’re thirteen days behind, and you struggle to catch up. It goes on til the middle of March, and that’s it. It’s over, you feel guilty, you have failed to keep the law. And this produces other weird behaviour, and you do other things to try to compensate for it.
Jesus has prayed enough. You pray for other reasons. You don’t pray to get even with your conscience, you don’t pray to be accepted by God. Jesus already prayed enough for you. Jesus already read the Bible enough for you – you read the Bible for other good reasons.
Being prompted to work because of what other people will think of you if you don’t, or because you’ll feel guilty if you don’t, is dead works. A dead work is anything that Christians do to avoid punishment of public opinion the punishment of a guilty conscience.
This whole world of motivation is not something benign, it is something very evil. Behind this whole world of manipulation and dead works and consciences that prompt you to do certain things is the devil himself. Revelation 12:7-10 says, “The accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.”
One of the primary ministries of Satan is accusation. And the way he gets at you is through your conscience. Your conscience is the part of you that will never be converted. It is the part of you that is wedded permanently to the Old Covenant. It is there to punish you for breaking the law, or not keeping the law that you should have kept. When you transgress, your conscience is there to punish you with guilt and anxiety and self-hatred. That is it’s ministry to you.
The devil gets to you through your conscience at the feeling level. You all know that you are accepted by God, but you don’t experience it, because where most people live is out of their feelings, out of their emotions, and this is where the conscience works – sort of ambiguously, in a cloudy kind of way, when you have done something wrong or you haven’t done something perfectly right. Some of you are so compulsive that you can never do anything right anyway, so there is always a sense of accusation and condemnation.
The Accuser says to your conscience, “You have broken the law. You need to be punished. You have sinned, now you must pay.” You see, your conscience has a plan of salvation for you too. You know what it is? Punishment forever. It is wedded to the Old Covenant way of doing things.
If we don’t know how to deal with our conscience and deal with the accusations that come from the devil through our conscience, then we will suffer no matter what we believe about grace. And we will launch more often than not into dead works to get even with our conscience and to quiet it.
One of the problems with dead works is that you can’t get out of it. You can’t do enough dead works to get even with your conscience, because there will always be something wrong with your motive for doing the good works, and then you will be accused of pride for doing things well.
Why do you think drugs and alcoholism are such a big problem? Because people’s consciences are killing them, and they have to do something to destroy them.
The only way to destroy the cycle of guilt and dead works is the grace of God. The answer to the Accuser and your accusing conscience is the blood of Christ. In Revelation 12:10 it says, “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb.”
How do you overcome the power of accusation by the blood of the Lamb? Blood in Scripture always means death – life poured out unto death. The blood of a sacrificial lamb means death on behalf of guilty parties that the lamb died for. That’s true in the Old Covenant and in the New Covenant. Blood that overcomes the accusation of the enemy silences the accuser.
The Accuser says, “You’ve done wrong”, or “You haven’t done right, and you need to be punished.” And your conscience says, “Yep, yep.” And you know what? You can agree with your conscience and say, “Yes, it’s true. I’ve fallen short. I do deserve to be punished. And I have been punished. There’s the blood of the Lamb. My punishment is paid in full.”
When were all your sins forgiven? Two thousand years ago, when the blood of the Lamb was shed for you. That is an objective fact. That is nailed into history. Your sins were forgiven two thousand years ago when the blood flowed from Jesus’ wounds, his hands, his feet, his side, the thorns on his head. The blood that flowed from his wounds is the blood that demonstrates his dying, his death. That death was the punishment for your sins, past, present and future.
There is no good work, there is no dead work, there is no any kind of work that can get you even with your conscience. Because your conscience knows, whether you know it or not, that you can’t feel bad enough or sorry enough for your sins. A lot of repentance goes dead wrong at this point.
Repentance for some is, if I grovel hard enough, if I feel bad enough, then somehow I can atone for my sin. You don’t have the capacity to feel bad enough for your sins! “Oh, but if I really show how much I hate sin ...” You don’t even come close to perceiving how much God hates sin. God hates sin. His wrath is poured out on it to the nth degree. You can’t even come close to hating it enough. You can’t come close to hating yourself enough to make those books balance.
All of his wrath was poured out on his Son, and the wounds of his Son and the blood that flowed from his wounds is the demonstration that all the accusations that come against you are null and they are void. They already have been punished. And you deal with your conscience by speaking to it, sometimes audibly. “Conscience – the blood of Christ cleanses me from sin. And there is now no condemnation, there is no accusation that is going to roost in this heart.”
You may believe in your heart that the grace of God is free, but you are going to constantly be applying it to your conscience. Read Hebrews 9:11-14. You need to go back over and over these verses until they become habitual to you. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death” – or, from dead works. We will be cleansed from dead works. The compulsion to work to get even with our conscience will be cleansed, we won’t have any need to work to be acceptable to God, because the blood of Christ will say “peace” to our conscience. There is one thing more powerful than your conscience, and that is the blood of the Lamb of God.
Your conscience says, “You sinned”, and you say, “I know I did.” It says, “You need to be punished”, and you say, “I know I do.” Your conscience says, “So here comes guilt and self-hatred and anxiety”, and you say, “No it doesn’t. Here comes the blood of God.”
Hebrews 10:19-24 says, “Let us draw near to God with sincere hearts in full assurance.” How do we get sincere hearts? By being sincere? How do we get full of assurance? “Having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience.” You cannot believe hard enough, you cannot study hard enough, you cannot memorize hard enough to give you assurance, because your conscience will undermine your assurance – because your conscience works at the feeling level, out of reach of sound theology.
“Having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience.” The blood of God is for your conscience. “And let us consider how we may spur one another one to love and good works.” Now you’re free, your conscience is free, you no longer do things compulsively. You do things freely. Now let’s spur one another on to love and good works – now that you are completely cleansed, let’s get to work.
Series: Foundations in Grace -- home