Monday, March 15, 2010

Faith, Grace, And Morality

I find that I must constantly remind myself that Malachi wrote before the new covenant of grace that was established through Jesus Christ. Recently I have found myself longing for some evidence of grace in Malachi. The tenor of the book has led to a tenor in my exposition that seems to focus exclusively on obedience with few hints of grace. For Malachi, the covenant was maintained by keeping the commandments. Faithfulness to the commandments was evidence of a person’s love for God and of right standing with God.

As Christians, we know that we cannot save ourselves no matter how committed we might be to the covenant with God or how faithfully we try to observe all of the commandments. None of us becomes morally perfect once we have accepted God’s grace, but grace does not remove the tension or the struggle for a moral daily walk.

In the spirit of Jesus’ teachings, the “morally concerned” most often seem to miss the mark. They focus on deeds and not on a spirit of compassion and grace. Often we struggle with that because compassion and grace seem to be “soft” on sin. Jesus didn’t want faith and discipleship to be a burden, but establishing and operating under “the rule of God” in our hearts and lives is not an easy goal.

Keeping grace and obedience in balance will not be easy. I have offered an approach to the issue, but not everyone will agree with it. When Broadman and Holman were beginning work on THE HOLMAN BIBLE DICTIONARY, I was invited to contribute a number of entries in the work—mostly short articles that filled in the gaps in the dictionary.

One of the articles I wrote was on “apostasy,” a subject that has been hotly debated among Baptists and other Christian groups. In the almost 20 years since I wrote that article, I have received only one letter about my treatment of that rather controversial subject. The letter came from Dr. Dale Moody, one of my seminary professors who is perhaps best remembered as the professor who tried with all his might to get Baptists to forsake their “once saved, always saved” views. Dr. Moody was rather complimentary of my article; but he wanted to know whether I had written the last paragraph or had it been written by the editors. That was the only part of the treatment that he did not like. I told him that I had written it, and it was my way of trying to reconcile the differences between those holding opposing views. I guess my “compromise” must have worked, because no one else has challenged the conclusion.

Here is that last paragraph: “Persons worried about apostasy should recognize that conviction of sin in itself is evidence that one has not fallen away. Desire for salvation shows one does not have ‘an evil heart of unbelief.’” Applying that principle to the discussion above, I would make a similar conclusion. People who focus on the sins of others and fail to express concern for their own sinfulness likely have missed the essence of Jesus’ teachings. Those who most loudly speak words of condemnation without first examining themselves are likely the hypocrites in our midst. Those who struggle with their own inclinations toward sinfulness are likely to be more compassionate toward “sinners like me.”

Maybe this is why Malachi troubles me. He seems to speak from a position of moral superiority, condemning others for their sin but with scant acknowledgement of his own “falling short.” Some will not be troubled at all about that issue because they think that Malachi was merely writing what God dictated, and God has no need to be concerned about revealing any sin in the Godhead. The problem with that view is that it divides the God we see in the Old Testament from the God revealed through Christ in the New Testament. Jesus showed compassion for sinners, not condemnation of them. He saved his condemnations for the pious who were blind to their own sin while focusing on other’s short-comings with a high powered microscope.

My former pastor, David George, on several occasions has quoted Dr. Ben Curtis of Belmont University. Many years ago Ben was in conversations with a church that wanted him to become its pastor. Dr. George was pointing out to him some things about being a pastor that he thought Ben might not like. In response, Ben said, “All I would expect from them is that they be religiously serious and decently human.” Those two things hold in tension what I am striving for in the study of Malachi. I believe God wants us to be religiously serious, but I also think God wants us to be decently human. In the tension of those two polarities, we will also find commitment and grace.

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