Tag Archives: Grace

Warning! Volunteer week

It’s National Volunteer Week.

I am grateful and comforted by community volunteering. I can call the SES if winds damage my house. Volunteer coaches help my kids at sport. Dedicated locals provide food and a friendly face to those in need. People go into classrooms to assist those troubled in reading. The list of volunteering positions is endless.

It’s great to say thanks to generous volunteers.

Churches are places of some of the most intense volunteering. Paid ministers get ‘seen’, but the hugest effort is voluntary: praying, visiting, feeding, setting up, administering, teaching, singing, encouraging, inviting … Thank you to all faithful volunteers. And thanks to God who equips and strengthens all his servants.

But there’s danger. Christian ministry has to be careful not to adopt all the practices of National Volunteer Week.

In particular, we should be wary of what heaps of volunteers say when pushed in front of a microphone. Again and again people urge us to volunteer because, ‘You will gain so much from the experience.’ The message? Volunteer because you will benefit: fun, friends, skill development, teamwork, contacts, meaning, and purpose. All these will be yours! Who knows where volunteering will take you?

If this were to become a common Christian way of motivating volunteers, then we will have stopped being Christian.

The gospel message is of grace, freely given. God’s gift is not a purchase or transaction for mutual benefit – it’s all of him. Grace is not the same as making a bank deposit – allowing the bank our money for a while so we can gain interest.

Jesus said, ‘It’s more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). Current inspiration to volunteer communicates, ‘If you give a bit you’ll receive heaps.’ There’s a world of difference between these two ways. The first is gospel, for it lives out grace. The second is essentially selfish.

If you are a Christian volunteer, and if you invite others to volunteer, make it gospel-shaped volunteering: give without seeking a return, give love to others freely and abundantly.



Salvation and law

Acts 15 is an internal Christian struggle about different people sharing the same faith in Jesus. Both Jew and Gentile joined together in trusting Jesus for forgiveness – and it lead to (helpful) problems.

When our church looked at this chapter, I produced some pictures to accompany the sermon. In the interests of recycling, here they are re-processed for the interwebs.

The Acts debate was internal to the ‘organisation’ – church – as different groups argued their points of view. Some Pharisees said, ‘They must obey the law, otherwise God will not save them.’ Others determined never to allow such an imposition: God saved Gentiles while they were Gentile, and without requiring a preliminary journey through Judaism.

This was an internal struggle of the mind, too, as Christians thought through the reality of what Jesus was doing. What Jesus was doing, and still does, is take people from death to life. The dead are without hope. The living are eternally blessed. The Bible uses a number of terms to describe the cross over: the new birth, cleansing, redemption, … The particular term of the Acts debate is salvation. Jesus saves dead and gives life, as in this diagram.


Importantly, salvation is totally a work of God. In shorthand, grace saves. ‘We believe that we [Jews] will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they [Gentiles] will.’ (Acts 15:11).

Since grace is 100% of God, we know that salvation is never the result of human merit. Salvation is not a reward for doing things. So, tweaking my diagram, see the two images below. Grace is good, but merit receives the big cross.



The next two pictures parallel the above two. Grace is accepted by faith. We trust that God’s provision is sufficient and fully able to save. In contrast, merit means the ‘dead’ person must do something (even if it be minuscule) that contributes to creating new life. Merit-thinking leads to salvation by law. ‘What brings merit?’ inevitably produces ‘Follow these laws.’

It’s a huge error if one tries to combine merit with grace. Grace and faith are always obliterated by any hint of merit and law.


Faith plus law

Yet this Bible passage holds a paradox. To communicate ‘grace without law’, the group send out this message:

“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
(Acts 15:19-21)

It sounds like: no law!; and, here are some laws for you. Or: don’t trouble Gentiles with the law; and, the Gentiles have heard the law of Moses already. Were they talking out of both sides of the mouth? They said no to circumcision – so why do they instruct about idols, immorality and food?

This is the place of my final picture. As you look at it, note that it has nothing to do with salvation. The cross-over arrow is gone.


Death has certain type of existence. So too does life. We could multiply the descriptions in each box, but I’m sure the idea is clear enough. There is such a thing as Christian living.

It’s handy to note that, quite frequently, Christian living will appear law-like. For example, if you love a Jewish person you will eat kosher food when you share a meal. Or again, every Christian will flee idols. Does kosher food bring salvation? Does God save people because they avoid idol feasts? Of course not! He saves by grace.

In Acts 15, the letter of instruction helped Gentile believers – saved by grace through faith – avoid the life of death and avoid offending Jewish Christians. Gentiles were saved, not by law. But saved Gentiles were called to live for Christ who saved them, and some of this behaviour was law-like.

Are you wary of legalism? (That’s when we place ‘law’ in the salvation arrow.) This is a legitimate concern. Make sure, however, that the teaching you condemn really does put law in that wrong place. Not all ‘law’ language is legalism.

Are you worried about Christian lax living? (That’s when we don’t bother living the godly life Jesus wants us to.) This too is a legitimate concern. Make sure, however, that you don’t give the impression that our behaviour saves us. Salvation is always only by grace.



Intelligent atheism

Here is a report of a meta-analysis (a gathering of many individual studies) that establishes a “reliable negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity”.

That is, atheists are smarter than believers.

Go ahead and read it – it’s an article with nuance. I worried that it might simply crow about superior IQ, but it avoids that. It recognises the cringe factor in raising the issue, the potential to be smug, or the possibility of defensiveness. It also touches on the complexity of finding causes for this association.


Credit: flickr user cjbaker4

I won’t repeat the points of the article here. Instead my starting point is the conclusion of this study, that higher intelligence correlates with agnostic or atheist beliefs. Given this, what can I say to atheists, and to Christians. (I limit myself to Christians, rather than the broader ‘religious’ group.)

Something for atheists
Firstly, intelligence does not automatically make for good arguments. An intelligent person can (and will) hold to crazy wrong ideas.

I am amazed that so many intelligent atheists have dumb ideas about Christianity. Richard Dawkins is the perfect example. When I’ve seen his input to science shows he’s interesting and engaging. When he talks on God-stuff, I scratch my head. He would lose a schoolyard debate with 12 year olds. He simply does not seem to get it. Similarly, sports writer Peter Fitzsimons likes to poke fun at God-botherers. No problem there because he writes to entertain, and being a stirrer is the persona he adopts. But, again, his writing comes across as clueless. When I read these guys, I feel like I’ve been threatened by an angry drunk, who proceeds to swing his fists at an imaginary image of me.

My request: if you are ‘on the side of intelligence’, please come up with real thought.

Secondly, intelligence is an excellent path to self-deception. I’ve seen clever thought and sophistry used to justify the ridiculous. ‘Of course I should leave my spouse and kids because of the psychological damage we’re causing each other.’ ‘I’m not doing this with any hubris, it’s purely a rational decision for the sake of my career.’ Yeah, sure!

As a rule, I’ve found those with less pretension to be deep thinkers are less likely to believe their own crazy rationalisations. (Actually, this applies as much to believers as to unbelievers.)

My request: if you think you’re smart, be humble enough to see that smarts are often misused.

Something for Christians
Firstly, we can admit that Christian folk sometimes peddle senseless ideas. We can be illogical and paranoid. We can speak out of misunderstanding. We can repeat arguments that are effectively urban myths, but sound convenient to our position.

Perhaps – and I sure am guessing here – but perhaps churches are liable to greenhouse such ideas because we don’t make intellectual rigour our top priority. It should not be top of the priority list, but that’s no excuse for a brain shut-down.

Just to get myself into trouble, I’ll say that I often find arguments of young earth creationists to be incredible. Too often the arguments go one of two ways. Either, ‘This is so important theologically that I will only talk about science.’ (Huh?) Or, ‘You are wrong because you are a fear-filled compromiser of truth.’ (Ad hominem.)

I have to say, sadly, that poor Christian thinking is not limited to a single area. It can crop up anywhere: creation, politics, family, church practice, music, …

My request: take time to think, and not to pass on half-baked thoughts.

Secondly, and most personally, I know I flinch at the suggestion that the average intelligence of atheists is higher than that of the religious. Perhaps you flinch too. We Christians want our people to be better than them.

We want to be better at thought, at work, at marriage and sex, at enjoying culture, at giving thanks to people, at contributing to the community. If we somehow fall behind in these areas we reckon we’re letting the side down. Or letting God down.

To be honest, we want to boast in ourselves. But God’s people are intrinsically un-boastworthy. Our only boast is in the Lord.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
1 Corinthians 1:23-29

When Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor’ he spoke of more than mere money. In all ways, Jesus’ disciples admit poverty. Including in the ability to impress God by high IQ. The measure of Christian truth is not my vocabulary. The only measure is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

My request: Christians, remember our gospel, that we are saved by the grace of God.



Grace & karma

A quick thought about grace and karma. Definitions are not hard to find for each. Those below are from Dictionary.com. (OK, I changed it to English spelling. I can’t seem to write ‘favour’ without the ‘u’.)

Grace: the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God.
KarmaHinduism, Buddhism the principle of retributive justice determining a person’s state of life and the state of his reincarnations as the effect of his past deeds.

It strikes me that grace and karma both share a humility and a confidence. They are humble and confident, however, in different ways. Karma relates these primarily to the individual. Grace considers these primarily in relation to God.

  • To one in trouble or suffering, karma humbly says: I do not know what you did.
    Yet with confidence adds: I do know you deserve it.
  • Grace says: I do not know the way of God here.
    And: I do know God is in control for his good.

If I have this right, many consequences flow. And it helps explain the practice of different faiths. I suggest, for example, that Christianity has a history and reputation for compassion that is not the same as for Buddhism. On the other hand, Christianity always faces the question of theodicy – justifying the ways of God – that is not an issue for the believer in karma.

Both of these fit the ‘humble confidence’ sayings above, I think.

What do you reckon? And can you think of other outcomes of these different views of justice and reality?