Costly grace and the treasure of joy

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
(Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV)

There are probably studies which show that the 2008 Olympic Games saw a significant rise in the reading of Hebrews 12:1-2 in churches the world over. I’m pretty sure I heard at least four sermons on the passage over that summer. Why not? I saw. It’s a great passage! Not bad for a book who’s author we don’t even know the name of.

Jesus is the goal for which we race, the prize for which we compete. He ran his race for the ‘joy set before him’ and we ought to do likewise. Of course the difficulty is in not finding that joy to be worth pursuing. Why have joy when I can have status? Money? Power? Authority? I could make it big. I could be somebody. I could take what I want. Yet we are told of some greater joy. It’s a joy the world can’t know, for it does not seek God and doesn’t know the joy of union with him.

And it is that greater joy to which I am called. For which I run.

Now, after six years of walking with Jesus and all the various activities, programs and church stuff I have been involved with I have realised this: Resisting sin is still the hardest part of being a Christian. It can be dressed up, disguised and even ignored but one of the most significant parts of the life of a Christian is the constant battle against sin.

It doesn’t end.

It’s one of the things which levels the field for all believers: We’re all running with endurance the race marked out. We’re all throwing off the trappings of sin. We’re all seeking the great joy for Which Jesus gave up his life.

It’s a small comfort indeed that there is no one believer who is better than another.

The key I see in the scriptures over and over again for the overcoming of sin is that the Christian should find that there is something better than sin. That something is God and his great joy and wonder. Yet, unhelpfully, the church has so often cheapened grace that we don’t see any point in pursuing God. There is nothing to stop us, for example: Preaching, leading worship, serving in mission and participating in most any part of the life of the Church.

As much as I am aware that God’s grace accepts all who will come, regardless of their brokenness – indeed, that is my testimony as much as anyones – it doesn’t help me believe there is a greater joy to pursue if those who are living sinful lifestyles are placed in positions of authority in the Church.

In a way, the Church can model the heavenly realities, demonstrating what the Gospel looks like. Paul gives a clear picture of those who ought to be in authority in the Church. I know I would find it more believable that there was a greater joy available if the Church’s leadership looked like that.

“If they get away with with it, why should I bother?”

I expect you’re reading this as legalism – as a set of rules for being a Christian which of course the things of faith are not. Yet those who are publicly associated with ‘Church’ ought to be those who live lives of integrity and honesty and humility. I think out of that heart of submission to God, there will come a righteous life, a holy life.

As one who is often in positions of Church leadership, I do endeavour to find joy in the task, as I find joy in Christ. Joy enough to resist sin and to walk in the way of the Lord.

God is good.

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9 Comments

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  1. Hey – am intrigued that you find that resisting sin is the hardest part of being a Christian. I find the hardest part is keeping in tune with God minute by minute – I am always forgetting to talk to him on a minute by minute basis. Thank goodness I know he isn’t forgetting me minute by minute and that he isn’t cross with me because I forget him. It gives me so much peace and joy.

    By the way has it ever struck you as unusual that the biggest problem with the churches who were written to in the new testament wasn’t their struggle with sin. If it had have been I think we would have had a completely different set of letters. In fact most of the time Paul and the others had to keep writing to them reminding them that they were actually doing things wrong – they seemed blissfully unaware of it – why the difference do you think?

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    • In my mind, the fight to not sin is the quest to remain in communion with God. It’s two sides of the same coin.

      Certainly Paul was writing about real issues facing the church of his day. When Paul encourages a church to be a certain way, to stop doing X and start doing Y, one can reasonably assume they were not doing enough of Y and way too much of X. I’m not sure that means they weren’t concerned about their sin, because their obedience to the instruction of Paul would depend on how seriously they understood sin. It seems being made aware of sin is an important step towards being Christlike.

      And of course we see that there was an ongoing correspondence between Paul and the other church leaders: The leaders in Corinth informed Paul of the sins in the congregation there. Maybe they were asking for advice in how to deal with it, as opposed to asking whether it was sinful or not. (1 Corinthians 5:1).

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  2. Hmm – not sure I see it that way – my choice is to concentrate on my sin or to concentrate on God – I don’t really see them at all as the same thing. I find the more I concentrate on God the less I think about or carry out sin – so I choose to be positive and think on God rather than negative and think on sin. Not really the same coin – i would suggest two different coins.

    Yes I agree that they were doing way too much of X (sin) and not enough of Y – but what I am saying is apart from maybe the odd few who were writing and moaning at Paul (and he had a go at them too) the rest of the church seemed totally oblivious that they were sinning (as indeed we see from 1 Cor 5 verse two where he tells them off for not being concerned at all about this sin) If they had been struggling with sin rather than oblivious about it – Paul would surely have written and encouraged them not to struggle rather than telling them off? As you rightly say their obedience to the instruction of Paul depended on how seriously they understood sin – and given that as far as we know he had to write definitely 3 if not four letters to them in the same vein – obviously they didn’t take their sin very seriously at all – let alone find themselves struggling to be free of it!

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    • I think we’ve just demonstrated why we shouldn’t desire to be too much like the early church! Sure we get the excitement of persecution but also there’s a vast amount of immorality to wade through. It seems the Gentiles easily fell into licentiousness, whereas the Jews seemed tempted by pride. In each situation Paul responds in order to help the newly formed church find it’s feet and head towards Christ-likeness.

      I understand victory over sin to be won by treasuring God – understanding and experiencing a greater joy in him than in some sin. The point of this post is to explore what that might look like in the life of the church. Somewhere in humanities fallen morality, we will always seek what is best for us. Fortunately, God has shown himself to be the very best for us.

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  3. ??? Bring on the early church as far as I am concerned – they were far far closer to God – they were experiencing far more of the blessings of God – they were experiencing far more help in time of need – they lived supernatural lives. None of them were trusting in their own goodness – they understood grace. The church today needs to get back to understanding grace, living in and using the gifts of the Holy Spirit and facing the persecution and tribulation that comes with walking with God. By the way I am not sure “excitement” of persecution is a helpful term! Yes the knowledge of knowing you are suffering because you are on the right track is a comfort and experiencing the strength of God to see you through persecution is a joy – but guessing they weren’t terribly “excited” to be persecuted. Yes they were
    getting things wrong (different things to the church today) but giving that God isn’t in the job of punishing either us or the early church – it doesn’t really matter what we get wrong in terms of correction – far more important is what we get “right” in terms of understanding God’s grace and God’s word and living by it – because only then do we stop getting things “wrong”.

    I am interested in your quote “victory over sin to be won by treasuring God” I hope that isn’t what you understood in what I said. There was only one person who gained victory over sin – and that was Jesus – on our behalf. We could “try” till we die” and we will never gain victory over sin in our own flesh – that was Jesus’ job. Jesus asks us to believe only that he has dealt with sin for us so that we get on with
    learning about God without allowing sin to get in our way and we do that by not concentrating on sin but concentrating on God (and back to my first sentence!!)

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  4. Of course the Galation church were being tempted back into the law but I still believe that they had a greater understanding of Grace that the church in the west today.

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  5. I’m not sure I’d say greater so much as different. The Gospel, from their perspective, looked different to the Gospel from our perspective: They understood their Christian faith as an oppressed minority in the Roman Empire. We, in the west at least, must understand our faith as a countercultural rebellion against the empire of wealth. They made mistakes and so have we, but of course it is the same God who works in and through his church in the changing contexts. We’ve got 2000 years of Christian saints to help us along our way, those who have gone before us and can point us to where Jesus might be in our lives. That’s one of the beautiful things about the Church: It’s rich, shared experience of the same God and the same Gospel.

    You’re probably right: Excitement wasn’t exactly the most sensitive of words! But the early church’s experience of Christianity was of course different to ours. What I mean to say is that the early church was not mature in it’s understanding of the faith, and many of the truths we cling to had yet to be figured out until a generation or two later, with the various councils and creeds which settled the matters of who Jesus was and what he came to do.

    Victory over sin in our everyday experience is indeed won by treasuring God: That is, knowing him and his love and beauty and strength and desiring him can lead us away from sin. Of course we can only desire God if we are made new by the death and resurrection of Christ, otherwise there is nothing in us that would ever desire God. For those of us who have been born again, at least, God becomes our greatest treasure and in seeking him, sin is defeated.

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  6. I don’t get what you are saying. Are you saying the Gospel has changed? the Gospel is the same – whatever the situation – the Gospel can’t look different from a perspective. The gospel is the gospel is the gospel – there isn’t a situation present today that wasn’t present at the time of Acts. I truly understand my faith as an oppressed minority in the so called democracy I live in. You and I have both experienced the feeling of being in the minority when surrounded by people who don’t believe what we know to be true. I do not belive there is any difference at all. The only difference is that we in the church today are so far removed from understanding the gospel of grace that we are scared of living a supernatural life.

    I don’t believe the Christians saints are there to point us to where Jesus “might be” in our lives. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that jesus IS in my spirit daily hourly minutely secondly and he isn’t going anywhere. The cloud of witnesses talked about in Hebrews is to encourage us in our faith – and faith is proof that we have already accepted Jesus – it’s how to grow in him.

    Are you honestly honestly claiming that we are “more mature” in the faith than they were in the early church. Heaven forbid. We haven’t even begun the path they were already on. We don’t even believe the basics – God made the world in 6 days – God’s word is TRUE in every jot and tittle – the Holy Spirit gives us the power to raise people from the dead – we are to go and heal the sick cast out demons raise the dead.

    What truths do you think were “discovered” a generation or two later – if you mean the reformation – all Martin Luther did was re-discover what the church in Acts already knew. because the church had gone so far away from the truth it was being ineffective. Do you honestly believe that the early christians couldn’t achieve the level of faith that we can achieve now because they didn’t know certain “truths”.

    Ok so if victory over sin is won by treasuring God if you say – isn’t the simple solution to treasure God and not think about sin?

    Can I ask who you think convicts you of all this sin you seem to feel you need to struggle with?

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  7. If we can use a modern day analogy: In some parts of the world, the culture is rooted around animism, the belief in spirits and demons. When people in those cultures believe in the Gospel, the part about Christ’s victory over spiritual powers becomes more significant than it might in our culture which has, to a large extent, abandoned that kind of spirituality. Similarly, when those who live in poverty and oppression believe in the Gospel, the parts about freedom and justice become more significant. That’s no bad thing, either. It demonstrates the wonder of the Gospel when it can be applied to such a diversity of contexts.

    I’m referring to the creeds which arose in the second and third centuries. Before that, ‘orthodoxy’ was not defined and many of the ways we understand God were not thought out. Of course that doesn’t mean God wasn’t as real to them as he is to us now. It took years and years of discussion to settle on the notion that, for example, Jesus was fully God and fully man.

    Someone said to me that when we get closer to God, walking closer to the light, it’s not so much that we become more sinful. It’s that the sin shows up more. Certainly that has been my experience: As I meet God in scripture and in prayer I begin to realise how, frankly wretched I am. That is the effect of God’s revelation to me.

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