Monday, November 26, 2007


The last few days have been nothing short of amazing. I feel like I'm starting all over again. Even worship songs that I've sung a thousand times are alive with new meaning.

I was feeling a little sick Friday and Saturday (probably at least in part because of all that I ate on Thursday!!) I used to look at sickness as a sign of weak faith -- and even though I had moved on from churches that held that belief, it was still a nagging doubt and a fear that I had to fight whenever I felt ill. It went like this: If your faith isn't strong enough to ward off a stomach bug, how can it be strong enough to be saved? Out of habit, I had started to think along those lines again... but then I realized something.

I had the equation backwards -- it doesn't say that you're saved by faith through grace, it says that you're saved by grace through faith. For years I believed that if my faith was strong enough, God would be gracious enough to save me. Now I'm learning that the strength is in God's grace -- and I couldn't even have faith without Him first extending His grace.

There's tremendous freedom in that realization. It was hard for me to believe that God really loved me when I also believed that I could lose my salvation at the drop of a hat. I respected God, I feared God, and I loved Him from a (hopefully safe) distance... but the thought that He loved me? Maybe He would someday, when I was closer to perfect... but for now, I figured He just tolerated me (and there were times when I even wondered about that).

I've finally begun to find what I've been looking for ever since I left the Pentecostal church. I wrote it on the RP homepage back when I started this project in July: "I just wanted to get back to basics, to rediscover a genuine relationship with God that wasn't based on performance, emotion, ritual, or pretending."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

An Epiphany

This is one of the definitions of "epiphany" in Webster's dictionary:

(1): a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2): an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure b: a revealing scene or moment

Several years ago there was a movie that dramatically illustrated an epiphany: it was called The Sixth Sense. The climax of the movie comes when the central character realizes, in a moment of stunning revelation, that things were not at all the way he thought they were. The neat thing about this movie is that the audience (at least the first time they see it) also experiences the epiphany for themselves. Up until that point, they were assuming the same things that the character was. At the moment of revelation, the audience (like the character) starts replaying previous scenes in their minds, and now the signs are plain to see, the hints jump out from the background, and the puzzle comes together in a most unexpected way.

I feel like I'm in the middle of an epiphany right now.

After I wrote my post on Monday, I emailed it to one of the associate pastors at my church -- the one who had recommended that I read Stanley's book. I wanted to know if he thought someone could lose their salvation, and if so, how? I've always believed that you could lose your salvation (and lose it quite easily), so the idea that you couldn't lose it was almost inconceivable to me. Surely there had to be a line somewhere, and when you crossed it, you were out... maybe the line wasn't where I thought it was, but it was still there SOMEWHERE... wasn't it? Grace without strings--come on, how could that be true? It was too easy. It was too extravagant.

Tuesday evening that pastor and I met at a coffee shop and he shared some of his story with me. He comes from a pentecostal background too, so he grew up believing that he could lose his salvation. He was afraid of God. Then he shared some things that helped him understand what grace really meant, and what impact that had on his relationship with God.

This pastor had a child who went through a very difficult rebellious phase. It hurt him very deeply, and even tho that child had walked away from the family, the pastor never stopped loving his child. He never lost his place in the family. In that experience, he recognized that if an earthly father was capable of loving his child through a situation like that, surely God's capacity to love His kids was even greater.

Anyone can love a person who loves you back and behaves correctly. It's harder to love someone who turns away from you... harder still to love someone who wrongs you. But that's exactly what God does.

When God adopted me into His family, it was forever -- warts and all. My capacity to walk away from Him will never exceed His capacity to hold on to me. I don't have to be afraid of losing my salvation on some silly technicality. God's not looking for an excuse to get rid of me.

In the course of one conversation it was as if my world was turned upside-down. Grace without the strings? Salvation that I couldn't lose? Could this really be true?

It seemed like there were a lot of verses in the Bible that supported the idea of losing your salvation... so that night I started looking for them. But even as I began to write out my questions, I could see some answers that hadn't been obvious to me before. Something inside "clicked," and I started to see everything differently. The clues had always been there. They were in plain view, I had just been oblivious to them. I had missed it... but now, in a way I had never anticipated, the puzzle was coming together.

Within a matter of hours, I had done a complete 180 on something I had strongly believed for ~15 years. And if felt really good.

Two days later, it's all still sinking in. I can't even completely put it into words yet, but I know that I can never look at things the same way. I've never known peace like I've known in the last two days. I can have a relationship with God now that isn't based on fear.

It seems especially appropriate that today is Thanksgiving. I've never understood grace or salvation more clearly than I do today, and I just can't help but thank Him for such an extravagant gift.

Monday, November 19, 2007


I read a very short but interesting book on Friday. It was called How Good Is Good Enough by Andy Stanley. It was really written for nonbelievers, but as I read it I realized that much of it applied to me as well.

Stanley says that most Americans believe in an afterlife, and if you ask those Americans what it takes to get to heaven, most of them will give some variation of the same answer: be good and you'll get in. He spends the rest of the book showing why that is a bad answer -- not just theologically, but logically.

Even though I might not have been in the target audience, I saw myself very clearly in the pages of that book. I've been living on a variation of the "good enough" belief system for a very long time. I don't believe that doing good things can earn me a place in heaven--I have always understood that only Jesus' sacrifice could do that. But once I was saved, I believed that salvation was basically mine to lose. If the Baptist view of salvation could be summed up as "once saved, always saved," then the Pentecostal belief could be stated as "once saved, barely saved." You could lose your salvation for any number of infractions.

Early on, when I attended churches with "Holiness Standards," the line was very clear: you dressed a certain way, no jewelry, women never cut their hair, men always had short hair, etc. Baptism (and baptism by a certain formula) was essential for salvation, as was speaking in tongues. Leadership was to be respected. Tithes were to be paid. Of course, they also had the more traditional list of terrible sins from which one was not likely to recover, but any violation of the rules could disqualify you from salvation. Essentially, works were still a part of the salvation equation.

I've moved on from that church -- and I've been in a couple of churches now since then -- but somehow, that belief has stuck with me. The list of salvation-losing mistakes has gotten shorter, but it was always there.

Salvation by grace? To me, grace meant getting another chance to get it right. Grace was like a chance to re-take a test that I had performed badly on at school. Grace was an extra few days to get a bill paid. Grace was getting a do-over when I really should have struck out. It was undeserved, it was very welcome, it was still amazing... but even after receiving grace, I still had to do something. Grace was the thought that Jesus died to give me a chance to know God... a chance to repent, get baptized, and live by the rules.

If you blew it, then the grace didn't matter. If I got just as bad a score on the test when I took it the second time, where was the benefit? What if I didn't get the bill paid in the grace period? What if I struck out again on the do-over? What if I violated the rules and lost my salvation?

But if I'm understanding Stanley correctly, that's not grace at all. Grace is failing the test, but being given an 'A' that someone else earned on my behalf. Grace is someone else paying the bill. Grace is not dependent on what I do.

Is salvation really that kind of grace--a grace without the strings?

Is the idea that I could do something bad enough to lose my salvation just as absurd as the idea that I could do something good enough to earn it?

Thursday, November 15, 2007


The memory verse this week at church was 2 Chr 16:9a - "The eyes of the Lord search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him." (NLT)

I'm not sure if that verse is encouraging or not...

It certainly wasn't meant to be an encouragement... not if you look at it in context. It's actually part of a pretty harsh rebuke from a prophet to a King. Rather than relying on God, the King relied on an alliance with an enemy. When the prophet rebukes him, the King gets so angry that he throws the prophet into jail.

Even out of context, there's a "sting" to this verse. Can I ever really say that my heart is fully committed to God? I don't know if my heart has ever been fully committed to anything. At any given moment, I'm going in at least four or five different directions. I can't say that I'm fully committed to any one of them. I like to say that I "multitask," but the truth is that I just work in fits and starts. I'll work one project intensely for a little while, start think about another project... switch gears and go that direction for a while... then on to a third, etc. Even writing this blog I might interrupt myself half a dozen times -- respond to an email, check a website, etc.

I say that I'm a Christian, a "Christ Follower," but am I really? What about when I ignore someone who needs a hand because I'm too busy? What about when I snap at a coworker? What about when I judge someone else or think badly of them? I can't honestly say that I'm fully committed to God in those situations. I can focus on doing better, but even when I do the right things, I don't always do them for the right reasons!

If God is seeking to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him, then I'm in deep trouble.

And I suppose I'm not alone either.

"I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin." (Rom 7:21-25 NLT)

It's a little unfortunate, I think, that the chapter ends there. It implies (at least to me) that there is a break in the flow, a change in the topic... and that's not the way it was written. The very next verses are "So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death." (Rom 8:1-2 NLT)

Now, that's encouraging.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Oneness vs Trinity

The last few weeks, the messages at my church have centered around the basics of the Christian faith. Last week introduced the Trinity, this week talked about God the Father, and over the next two weeks we'll hit the Son and Holy Spirit.

This is all very interesting to me since I was part of a Oneness Pentecostal church, and I spent a lot of time when I first left trying to sort out what I believed about God.

In Oneness teaching, God is one person: Jesus. The Father, Son, and Spirit are "roles" rather than "persons." Just as one person can be a father, a son, and a husband at the same time, so God could be all three at the same time while still being one person. God is the Father in creation, the Son in the incarnation, and the Spirit who dwells in us. Jesus is the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In Trinitarian teaching, God is one God in three persons. The Father is a person, the Son is a different person, and the Spirit is another different person. All three have always existed and even talk to eachother. They have different roles, but they are not just different aspects of the same person. Jesus is not the Father or the Spirit, Jesus is the Son.

To complicate issues, and because Trinitarians don't tend to talk about the Godhead so much, there are preachers with Oneness beliefs who teach in Trinitarian circles. For the most part, the language of Oneness is not offensive to Trinitarians. After all, they believe that there is one God and they believe that Jesus is God... so as long as they're not talking about baptism in Jesus' name, the average Trinitarian wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

After all, you won't find the word "Trinity" in the Bible. There was a time when I really struggled with it... but then I realized something. When a child is very very young, they might not have a very developed understanding of who their father is. They know him as Daddy, they know that he loves them, and they know that they're safe with him. There have been times in my life when that's really just about all I could say about God with any kind of certainty. It's also all that I needed...