Amazing (Grace) Mercy How Sweet the Sound

With apologies to John Newton, God’s mercy is as amazing as His grace! Where would we be today without the mercy of God?

Mercy is often associated with pity or compassion and is sometimes translated by those words. Both concepts are certainly part of God’s mercy but it is so much more. It’s more in any way you look at it. It’s more in intensity; it’s more in duration; it’s more in substance; it’s more in quality; it’s more in quantity – it’s just more than we can describe.

Over the years theologians, and others, have offered definitions to explain God’s grace and mercy, but none of their definitions get it completely right. One favorite way to explain grace and mercy is that God’s grace is giving us what we don’t deserve (His love, forgiveness etc) while His mercy is not giving us what we do deserve (judgment). Again, it’s true but there is so much more.

Simply put, and this is admittedly too simplistic, both mercy and grace are aspects of God’s love. Mercy is God’s love given to those who need it the most – the blind man (John 9), the cripple (John 5), the leper (Matthew 8) were all recipients of His mercy.

Grace is different. Grace is God’s love given to those who deserve it the least – people who are not just physically damaged but especially to people who are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:8). None of us deserves to be forgiven.

Not perfect definitions but they’ve helped me understand the distinctions a little better.

As much as we talk and sing about God’s grace it is His mercy that stands behind His grace. Grace is motivated by mercy (Ephesians 2:4-5).

Without God’s mercy there would be no salvation. Without His mercy there would be no healing. Without His mercy there would be no forgiveness for our daily sin. Without His mercy there would be no escaping judgment. Without his mercy there would be no hope for eternity.

Without mercy, grace would just not be the same.

Yes, grace is essential and we need to give it the importance it deserves. But so is mercy.

Think what your life would be like without the mercy of God. Think what eternity would be like without the mercy of God.

The old hymn says, O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be. We’re also immensely in debt to mercy.

Thank God for His grace – but also thank Him for His mercy.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

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A Christian Response

Las Vegas, Nevada – 58/500+
Sutherland Springs, Texas – 26/20

That’s how many people were killed and wounded at two terrible shootings in our country between October 1 and November 5. In 36 days.

84/520+.

I’ll leave the political debate to others. My concern is from another perspective. Since the vast majority of my audience is made up of Evangelical Christians, the issue for us, most of who are far removed from either Nevada or Texas, is how do we respond?

How should Christians respond to horrific events in our culture?

After the shooting in Las Vegas I suggested five Christian responses in a blog published on October 2. You can read it here.

The five responses I gave following the Las Vegas shooting were:

-Hate is Wrong
-Sinful Anger is Not an Option
-Revenge is Out of the Question
-Prayer is Always Good
-Self Inspection is Appropriate
-Forgiveness is Always Right

Those are still good points. Let me add three more.

Recognize the Awfulness of Sin

This is a bottom line issue and the bottom line is that men are sinners (Romans 3:23) and sinners do terrible things. Sure not all sinners do such extremely bad things, but we are all capable of the most horrific actions. It’s time that we faced the reality of the awfulness of sin (James 1:15). There’s nothing good about it. It’s like a cancer that eats away at your life until there is nothing left. The sin that was committed in Sutherland Springs should cause us to take swift and fierce action against any sin in our own lives.

Recognize Your Own Deadly Potential

The problem is that we downplay sin. It’s not so bad. At least my sin isn’t so bad. So we keep it and it lives in the deep recesses of our lives. And all the while it’s worse than we can even imagine. The step from lust to adultery, from anger to hatred, from hatred to murder is much smaller than we think. The deadly potential for unspeakable sin lies deep in all of us – just ask King David (2 Samuel 11-12, Psalm 51). We are not as far from Devin Kelley as we would like to think.

Rejoice in the Grace of God

But then there’s grace. Praise God for grace! It is only the grace of God that keeps any of us from committing more horrific sins than we do. It was grace that took a sworn enemy of Christianity like Paul and turned him into the greatest missionary of the church. It was grace that took a slave trader like John Newton and changed his heart so that he wrote one of the most enduring hymns of Christendom. And it’s only the grace of God that will help us cope with the terrible sins in our culture. And in that grace we can and should rejoice.

As you grapple with the awfulness of sin and your own potential for sin and the wonderful grace of God, remember to pray for the people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Responding to Violence

Another shooting. More violence. More deaths. It’s getting to the place where it doesn’t surprise us anymore. We almost expect it.

As of this afternoon the death toll in the Las Vegas shooting stood at 58 with another 515 people wounded. 573 people whose lives have been forever changed – and that doesn’t take into consideration the thousands of people – wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, children, moms, dads, cousins and friends of the dead and wounded who have been dramatically impacted.

What are we to make of these life-changing events?

How should we respond?

People are going to have a variety of responses ranging from anger to sadness. And that’s understandable on a human level. However, for the Christian there are some appropriate ways to respond and they will take more than a human effort.

Those who don’t confess faith in Christ will struggle to understand this. In fact many Christians will struggle to respond in a Christ-like way. The struggle is not wrong as long as you end up in the right place.

So here are a few responses and how Christians should understand them.

Hate is Wrong

To be a little more specific – hatred of the shooter is wrong. You can hate the tragedy, or the conditions that drove him to act this way, or a society that has degenerated to this point, but to hate the individual, no matter how grievous their crime is wrong. Jesus taught us to not only love those who love us, but to love those who don’t love us (Matthew 5:43f). Hatred does not solve the problem, it exacerbates the problem (Proverbs 10:12) and leaves you filled with bitterness (Hebrews 12:15).

Sinful Anger is Not an Option

The Bible is filled with warnings about the dangers of anger (Psalm 37:8, Ecclesiastes 7:9, Ephesians 4:31, James 1:19-20), but apparently there is an anger that is not sinful (Ephesians 4:26), such as anger against evil or sin. But the overriding message of the Bible is that anger is not the solution in most situations in life, in fact in the vast majority of cases it is sinful. Jesus equated anger with murder in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:22) so when our response is to be angry with the shooter, we have put ourselves side by side with him.

Revenge is Out of the Question

In a passage of the Bible that falls into the one of the hardest to obey category, we’re told that revenge is out of the question (Romans 12:17-21). As much as we would like to set things right by doing to the shooter what he did to so many innocent people, God says that we just can’t go there. Revenge is His option, not yours. Your only option is to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

Prayer is Always Good

Prayer is appropriate at a time like this. Pray for the wounded. Pray for the families and friends of those who died or were wounded. Pray for the family of the shooter. Pray for the people who have been traumatized. Pray for the responders who had to deal with the shooting and with those who had been shot. Pray for the government officials who need to wrestle with this issue. Pray for a solution to violence. Pray for peace. Prayer is always good (Luke 18:1f, Philippians 4:6, 1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Self Inspection is Appropriate

When violence happens we are quick to focus on the person responsible for the violence to the exclusion of examining our own hearts. But how many times have we acted in hatred? How many times have we caused pain to another person? How many times have we allowed violence to control us? Times like this are good times for some self inspection. Again, the Bible has something to say about our hearts and it’s not necessarily good (Jeremiah 17:9, Matthew 15:18-20). A lack of self inspection usually leads to self-deception.

Forgiveness is Always Right

Always. Forgiveness is one of the distinguishing attributes of the Christian faith. We are to forgive regardless of the severity of the crime. It’s fair to say that without forgiveness there would be no Christian faith. It’s that important. God forgives us when we repent of our sin and express faith in Christ (Psalm 32:1-2, Luke 7:47-48, Ephesians 1:7, 1 John 1:9) and He forgives us for the innumerable sins we commit as Christians. How then do we withhold forgiveness from others? We are to forgive regardless of their offense (Matthew 6:15, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13). Forgiveness is always right.

Responding to violence as terrible as this will not be easy. It will take more grace than you can muster. That’s why you need to rely on His grace. With the grace that only God can give, you can respond in a godly way.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

What is Your Mental Image of God?

When you think about God, what do you see in your mind’s eye? How do you imagine God?

Maybe it’s Michelangelo’s image of God in his Sistine Chapel fresco The Creation of Adam. Perhaps it’s Raphael’s depiction of God in his famous painting Ezekiel’s Vision.

Jesus said that God is spirit, that is, He is not material (John 4:24). However, there are a number of times that the Bible records visual depictions of God (2 Chronicles 18:18, Isaiah 6:1, Ezekiel 1:26, 10:1, Daniel 7:13 and Revelation 4:2). They were given to us so that we could in some way understand who He is.

Unfortunately our view of God is sometimes limited by visual images and that’s as far as we get in our knowledge and understanding of God. That’s not just a limited view of God, it can lead to a false view.

There’s so much more to God that we can know from a visual image.

Another way that people imagine God is based on their life experiences. Often their view of God as Father is colored by their own experience with their earthly father. If their biological father was kind and loving, then they see God as a kind and loving Father. If their earthly father was judgmental and harsh, that’s how they think of God.

Both extremes are unfortunate. If your father was kind and good, God is a thousand times kinder and better. To equate Him with the kindness and love of your earthly father is to sell God short.

If your earthly father was a tyrant, well that’s not God at all.

We have to divorce our image of God from artistic depictions or even from our earthly experiences. God is far different from either. And when we limit our image of God, the God that we see in our minds, to images and experiences we miss the best of God.

Your mental image of God is important because how you think about God will determine how you respond to God, how you pray, how you trust. It will determine your entire relationship.

Our God is the most loving, the most gracious, the most merciful, the most caring, the most concerned of anyone you will ever encounter. He is the most of anything and everything that is good and right and righteous and just.

He loves you more than anyone will ever love you. He loves you more than you deserve to be loved. He loves you more than you will ever understand.

The same can be said for His grace to you, His mercy towards you, His care for you, and His concern for you.

It’s important to have a mental image of God that is reflective of who He is in all of His Goodness.

It will make all of the difference in your relationship. It will make all of the difference in how you respond.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Keeping Perspective

It’s important to keep life in perspective. In fact, perspective is everything.

This week my Facebook page is filled with the colors of the French flag as people identify with the French people in their hour of suffering. Blue, white, and red are evident in abundance. And that’s as it should be.

However we cannot allow the evil that resulted in such tragedy to dominate our hearts and minds. It’s too easy to throw up our hands in despair or – on the other side, to let anger and even hatred fill our hearts. It’s a matter of perspective.

What should our perspective be in the face of such evil and suffering? Here are a few things that should dominate our thinking.

>We have a God of grace and mercy

Our focus is not to be on evil but on good, and as Jesus reminded us only God is good (Matthew 19:17). That means that He is to be our focus. He is to be the One who dominates our hearts and minds. In a time of suffering, confusion and turmoil we are to see His Grace and His Mercy. He is the One who puts it all into perspective.

>Light dispels darkness

It’s a universal truth. Light will always dispel the darkness. Darkness cannot overcome light – light always overcomes darkness. That’s true in the physical realm and it’s even truer in the spiritual. Whenever a great tragedy happens it seems like we are being engulfed by the darkness. But as long as we carry the light (Matthew 5:14-16) there is hope for those in darkness. Light puts the darkness into perspective.

>Love conquers hate

Someone posted on Facebook this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. As counterintuitive as it seems we are called to love the hater who took so many innocent lives because only love can drive out hatred. We’re not only commanded to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39) we’re commanded to love those who bomb us and take the lives of our sons and daughters (Matthew 5:43-48). As hard as that is – it’s how Jesus loved us (Romans 5:8). Love puts hatred into perspective.

>Jesus is the answer

It’s tempting to think that bombs and killing are the answer. But they’re not. Humanity has been bombing evil (often a matter of perspective) since anyone can remember. And it’s still here. It just changes form – and names. I’m not suggesting that we should ignore the evil or concede defeat. I’m just saying that force is not the ultimate answer to evil. It will always come back. The ultimate answer is Jesus Christ and that’s where Christians need to focus their time, energy, and resources. Jesus puts the entire world into perspective.

Empathize with the French people. Pray for them. Show your support for them. Mourn those who were lost. But keep it all in perspective.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Don’t Expect God to Make Everything Right

Linda Randall popularized the song God on the Mountain. If you’ve never heard her beautiful voice you can listen to her sing it here. I’ve mentioned this song in some of my previous posts – it’s got a great message of encouragement.

My wife was part of a duet that sang it at our church this past Sunday. The chorus of the song says:

For the God on the mountain, is the God in the valley.
When things go wrong, He’ll make them right.
And the God of the good times
is still God in the bad times.
The God of the day is still God in the night.

There’s always been one phrase of the song that bothered both me and my wife. It’s the phrase when things go wrong, He’ll make them right. I know that ultimately God will make everything right. But I don’t think when most people hear the song they’re thinking long-range. They want God to make it right and to do it now. And if that is how people understand this song aren’t we offering them a false message and a false hope?

The reality is that God doesn’t always make things right in the short-term. In fact He may not make them right in our lifetime. He didn’t make everything right for the unnamed heroes in Hebrews chapter 11. He didn’t make everything right for countless missionaries through the centuries who have been martyred for their faith. When we expect God to make everything in life right we’re missing the point of our faith

So with apologies to the author (Tracy Dartt) and to Linda Randall who made it so popular, our duet made a slight change in the wording of the song. Instead of singing when things go wrong, He’ll make them right, they sang when things go wrong live by faith not by sight.

After all that is the defining mark of a Christian – living by faith. Paul tells us in the book of Romans that the just shall live by faith (Romans 1:17). And he says explicitly in 2 Corinthians for we walk (live) by faith not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). That’s who Christians are; it’s what they do.

The Christian life is not waiting for God to make right the wrongs of our lives. It’s not even wanting God to do make them right. That’s living by sight; by what we can see. We’re to live by faith; by what we can’t see but know to be true. So when life goes wrong we show our faith, not by asking God to make everything right but by trusting God even when we can’t see and we don’t understand. That’s faith (Hebrews 12:1).

Don’t expect God to make everything right. If He does it’s called grace and you can be thankful. But if He doesn’t we still need to live by faith.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

The Importance of Symbols

I don’t know when people figured out that symbols were useful, but I suspect it was early on. Some of the earliest written forms were pictorial in nature. Before alphabets were designed people drew symbols. Fast forward several thousand years and Madison Avenue figured out that they could describe a company or product in a hundred words or they could simply show you a picture. So along came the Golden Arches, the Swoosh and the Apple.

The importance of symbols has been reignited in our collect conscience by the recent tragedy in South Carolina and the ensuing debate over one of the most notorious symbols in American history, the Confederate flag. To the proponents of the flag it is a symbol of their proud history and freedom from federal domination. To others it is a symbol of slavery, racism, and hatred.

What is sometimes forgotten in the heat of debate is that symbols are more than pictures – they are powerful images that invoke thoughts and actions in us. By design they are made to produce a response.

The other thing that is sometimes overlooked is that the same symbol can mean different things to different people – people see them in different ways. The Golden Arches can symbolize either cheap, tasty food or obesity; the Swoosh either great shoes or run-away capitalism; the Apple either advanced technology or time-wasting machines. It all depends on how you look at things.

Christianity has used symbols with varying success since the first century. Some groups have used them more extensively and effectively than others. The Eastern Orthodox Church has used symbols in their religious ceremonies for centuries and still does today. Other groups use few symbols.

Without question the greatest Christian symbol is the cross. And it, like most symbols, is viewed differently by different people. To the Romans the cross represented an instrument of death. To the Jews it was a symbol of shame. To the Greeks it was a symbol of foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). But to the Christian the cross has always been a symbol of the most powerful love ever expressed to man. It is central to our theology and our lives. Without the cross there is no forgiveness, no hope and no future. This one symbol represents everything about our faith.

And in a manner of speaking it represents everything about God. Thousands of books have been written attempting to explain God to us but we still see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). We’re still left with unanswered questions. But there is a way to know God (I’m not neglecting the Bible here). Without being too simplistic, if you want to understand God just look at the symbol – it will tell you what you need to know.

It is the Cross that teaches us about God’s love, His wisdom, His forgiveness, His nature, His eternal plan, His sacrifice, His kingdom, His mercy, His compassion, His justice, His grace, His humility and so much more.

And it is the Cross that calls people to a response of faith.

God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14).

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve