In conversation with colleagues about how we should define some of the things we prize most highly at Lee University, such as “redemptive service,” it struck me how wonderful, and also how impossibly high is our calling. We must acknowledge both the difficulty of the things God calls us to do and, on the other hand the amazing resources we have through our union with Christ Jesus.
In order to redeem even parts of this fallen world to the state of flourishing God intended (shalom), much more than justice is required of us. (By “justice” I mean a state in which everyone receives their due, whether punishment or reward.) Grace is needed. God calls us to love and bless our enemy rather than to retaliate, to return good for evil, and this is not justice, but grace. Grace is on display when a kind word is given in response to a hurtful comment or when material help is given when it was not earned. It goes beyond mercy—freeing someone from the cost of wrongdoing—by giving a gift that is undeserved.
Here are two stories that put grace on display:
A man in Eastern Oregon, where I grew up, found that someone had been stealing his hay bales. One day he found the thief loading bales from his haystack into a pickup truck. The owner of the hay parked his truck, got out, and started helping the man load. “Here I’ll help you. How much do you need?” The loading he did and his offer to give that man as much hay as he said he needed was not justice. It was grace.
Watchman Nee, in his book Sit, Walk, Stand, tells of a man who found that his neighbor consistently stole water by making a breach in a retaining wall and thus drained water into his own rice fields below. The wronged man decided to pump the water (an arduous manual process) for his neighbor in the morning and then pump water for his own fields in the afternoon. This kindness was not justice, but grace.
Rather than seeking justice, these two men treated others with grace—with undeserved kindness, gentleness, patience, goodness, and self-sacrifice. They “turned the other cheek.” They set aside their rights to serve someone else. Justice is only a baseline requirement. Loving our neighbor the way Jesus says we should, however, means treating people with this kind of grace. It means setting aside our rights for the good of others.
A High Calling
Let us first acknowledge how much is required of us. The kind of grace we are talking about is too radical, self-sacrificial, and beautiful for us to attain on our own. Here is what Jesus commands:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers,[i] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5)
And lest we think Jesus’ purpose is only to force us to acknowledge that we cannot fulfill the requirements of God’s law (which he is, but the requirement is no less real), consider how Paul, the apostle of grace, talks in this passage from Romans 12:
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21)
How to Live This Way
The key to following these commands is not to dig deeper and work harder, but to surrender more completely to God. The passage from Romans 12:9-21 quoted above is preceded in verses 1-2 by the following:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
We are called to lay down our lives completely and devote ourselves to God. We can then be transformed and can stop following the patterns of this fallen world because our minds are renewed. In this renewed state, we will know through our own experience how good, pleasing, and perfect it is to do what God desires.
How are we transformed? How is it that our minds are renewed? Paul says elsewhere that the transformation and renewal is already ours through the God’s Spirit living within us. It is ours because he indwells surrendered individuals who have offered themselves unreservedly to him. “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.” (1 Corinthians 2:12) And soon after that sentence comes this remarkable statement: “‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (v. 16)
What is his mind like? Philippians 2 tells us:
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[b] being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him…. (Philippians 2:3-9)
We are to have the mindset of Jesus, who set aside his rights as almighty God in order to serve our interests by becoming a human and rescuing us by his death. And this mindset “is yours,” as it says in Philippians 2:5. It is freely available to us who are in Christ Jesus. It is not natural to deny our own desires and put others first. The ability to count others as more significant than ourselves, to consider their interests, and to serve them does not come naturally, but it is ours in Christ.
Christ Jesus’ mind is available to us through our identification and union with him in his death and resurrection. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23-25) Having done that, we can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” In other words, we recognize the fact that Jesus carried all our dirty, rotten selves on his shoulders and died in our place on the cross. Our old selves have been put to death, and his resurrection life now flows to us by his Spirit, who is present inside us.
How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:2-11)
Rather than having to operate on our own strength, we have God’s tremendous energy and power available to work through us. “[I]t is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13) He changes us from the inside out. This is not a matter of window dressing, but gets to the very core of our being. He works within to give us desire for the things that give him pleasure. He gives us his mind, his way of thinking and feeling.
In fact, God wants to lavish all the riches of his grace on us. Every spiritual blessing is ours in Christ.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he[b] predestined us for adoption to sonship[c] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. (Ephesians 1:3-8)
17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:18-21)
I love the way the passages above reveal God’s lavish generosity! Everything we need is ours in Christ. Here are some passages that reinforce this point:
Romans 8:32: He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
2 Peter 1:2-4: 2 May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
Ephesians 4:22-24: 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
If we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ, why do we not feel so blessed? If we have the mind of Christ, why do we struggle with loving those who bug us? If we do not experience all the riches of Christ Jesus, partake in his divine nature, and experience his power, it is probably because our surrender to him is incomplete. Anyone who would follow Jesus must take up their cross daily and follow him. This is an active, daily process of laying down our lives and offering our bodies as living sacrifices to be used for his good purposes. They key is surrender.
I think that surrender is an ongoing process, not a one-time decision. We don’t realize all the implications of giving our lives to God when we first receive Jesus as Lord and master. We invite him as a guest in the living room of our lives, only to find that he wants to peer in the closets and walk into the master bedroom, where we have been stashing unfolded laundry. We were kind of hopeful that he wouldn’t see the mess in the back bathroom, but he wants to clean and control every part of the house of our life.
We know we can grieve the Holy Spirit who lives in us by feeling, thinking, and doing disgusting things, but a surrendered person longs strip off these things like dirty clothes and to wear Christ’s righteousness. We want the stains exposed so that we can be free of them.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)
We want to experience his ways, which are good, pleasing, and perfect. They are so perfect, in fact, that the only way to experience them is if he accomplishes them through us.
Oh God, please cause me to live in your light and to be utterly surrendered to your will! Please cause your Spirit to well up in me, filling me to overflowing because Jesus bought me by his blood and presents me blameless in your sight. Cause me to walk in your ways and to have the mind of Christ.