J. Michael Feazell served for many years as Vice-President of Grace Communion International, Executive Editor of Christian Odyssey magazine, and host of the You're Included video series. He earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from Azusa Pacific University and has written Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God.
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Most of us go to great lengths to look good in the eyes of others. We want them to think well of us, to look up to us, even to admire us. Think about it: When we know someone we respect is watching, don’t we make every effort to be on our best behavior?
We can even put so much effort into looking good in the eyes of others that we begin to believe our own propaganda about ourselves. We can begin to think that we really are about the finest, most decent, honest and godly human being we know. But according to Jesus, it’s only when we honestly see ourselves as we really are that we begin to enjoy the grace and mercy God has given us.
The night Jesus was arrested, he took some time to tell the disciples about the Holy Spirit. In describing the Holy Spirit, he used an Aramaic word that was translated into Greek as parakletos, a word conveying the sense of “advocate,” “friend” or “supporter.” For example, parakletos was used to describe a person who would stand beside you in court to support you, to speak up for you, to hearten you.
Jesus knew that things were about to get hard, not just for him, but also for those who would follow him. So he said to the 11 disciples:
I’ve told you these things to prepare you for rough times ahead. They are going to throw you out of the meeting places. There will even come a time when anyone who kills you will think he’s doing God a favor. They will do these things because they never really understood the Father. I’ve told you these things so that when the time comes and they start in on you, you’ll be well-warned and ready for them. (John 16:1-4, The Message paraphrase)
What is it that these persecutors did not understand about the Father?
Several things. They did not understand that the Father loved the world so much that he would send his Son to save it from its sins, as John recorded Jesus saying in John 3:16.
They did not understand what Paul described in Ephesians 3:9-11: The “mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God…. which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And that “in him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (verse 12). Jesus also said:
I didn’t tell you this earlier because I was with you every day. But now I am on my way to the One who sent me. Not one of you has asked, “Where are you going?” Instead, the longer I’ve talked, the sadder you’ve become. So let me say it again, this truth: It’s better for you that I leave. If I don’t leave, the Friend won’t come. But if I go, I’ll send him to you. (John 16:4b-7, The Message)
The disciples were sad because Jesus was leaving them. But what they didn’t yet understand was that his going to the Father would result not in their loss of him, but rather in their union with him and with the Father. How? Because he would send the Holy Spirit, the Friend, who would draw them into the eternal relationship of love that exists between the Father and the Son.
“When he comes,” Jesus continued,
he’ll expose the error of the godless world’s view of sin, righteousness, and judgment: He’ll show them that their refusal to believe in me is their basic sin; that righteousness comes from above, where I am with the Father, out of their sight and control; that judgment takes place as the ruler of this godless world is brought to trial and convicted. (John 16:8-11, The Message).
How is the world wrong about sin?
The world thinks sinners can atone for their sins by doing works of goodness. But here is the fascinating thing. Because Jesus came to forgive all sin and reconcile all things to God, the only kind of sin that can remain is the sin of not trusting in the One who takes away all sin. The root of all sin is unbelief in God’s own atonement for human sin through Jesus Christ.
How is the world wrong about righteousness?
The world thinks of righteousness in terms of human virtue and goodness. But here is the fascinating thing. Now that the Son of God has lived a sinless human life and has been accepted by the Father as the perfect offering of humanity in sinful humanity’s place, righteousness can be defined only in terms of the gift of God, a gift rooted in Jesus Christ, who, in our place and as one of us, did everything his Father commanded him to do for our sakes.
How is the world wrong about judgment?
The world thinks that people who endure great suffering in this world are great sinners under God’s curse, and that people whose lives are abundant have been judged worthy and are under God’s favor. But here is the fascinating thing. Now that the Son of God has destroyed the works of the devil, the pioneer of sin, judgment can be defined only in terms of the condemnation of the god of this world, not in terms of the condemnation of the very people Jesus came to save.
The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, would bring the truth about sin, righteousness and judgment. He would
take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won’t draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that I have done and said. He will honor me; he will take from me and deliver it to you. (John 16:13-14, The Message)
Forgiveness of sin, righteousness, and deliverance from sin are all gifts of the Father to us through Jesus Christ, and we experience them only by trust in God’s word of salvation, which he gives us by the Holy Spirit. In Christ, we are reconciled to the Father, partakers of Christ’s righteousness and of his union and communion with the Father.
In the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus illustrated the difference between the world’s view of sin, righteousness and judgment and the true view that the Spirit would lead us to see.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Take a look again at verse 9: Jesus told this story for the sake of those “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” Such people don’t feel the need to pray for God’s mercy like the tax collector did. But it was the tax collector, the one who saw himself before God as he really was—a sinner in great need of mercy, who “went home justified before God” (verse 14).
Think about this: The tax collector had to trust God with his life, didn’t he? He knew he deserved nothing, but he trusted God to be the way God says he is: “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). When we go to the judgment seat of God, honestly confessing our sinfulness and asking for mercy, the Judge turns out to be the Defense Attorney, who turns out to have taken our crimes on himself and then declared us innocent and set us free.
That is why we, as Christians, devote ourselves to extending grace, mercy and compassion to others.
The Prodigal Son in the Luke 15 parable knew he needed mercy, and that is all he knew, so that’s what he went home to ask for. When he did, he found out that he had had it all along—but only now that he had come home, trusting his father to be merciful, was he able to start enjoying the mercy he’s always had.
In Micah 6, God gives his answer to what the Israelites should do in the wake of their sins: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). To act justly requires an unselfish agenda. It means doing what is right even if it might not be in our own best interest. We can do that when we trust God, because we believe that God sees everything and makes everything right in the end.
This goes hand in hand with loving mercy (or kindness, as it can also be translated). James pointed out that mercy triumphs over justice (James 2:13). The kind of justice God is interested in is the kind that is subject to mercy. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7), and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7).
To walk humbly with God means that we see how much we need God and that we accept God’s gift of mercy. Another way of saying that is “repentance and faith.” To repent is to see our need for God’s mercy and turn to him, in faith that whatever he does will be good and right. It means to rest in God, and in God alone.
This instruction in Micah goes hand in hand with what is called the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus told the disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.” This is not a new form of legalism. It is, rather, a description of what life is like among those who are in Christ. People who can’t see their own sinfulness, and therefore don’t feel any need for mercy, don’t tend to extend mercy to others.
On the other hand, people who do understand the grace they’ve received from God, are not quick to hold a grudge or to withhold forgiveness. Because we are in Christ, we are forgivers, and we trust God to forgive us. So when we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” we don’t ask as though God might not do it. In Christ, God has already forgiven us.
Our asking God to forgive us our debts is two things: 1) a reminder of the forgiveness we already have in Christ, and 2) a participation in the forgiveness we already have in Christ. In the same way, the prayer “as we forgive our debtors” is also a reminder of, and a participation in, our new life in Christ in which we forgive just as we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32-5:1-2).
We can trust God to give us everything we need for life, godliness and salvation. Because he is the Judge, we have nothing to fear in the judgment. And more than that, God does what he does for us because it is his good pleasure to do so (Luke 12:32). He is for us.
We don’t have to be prisoners of “keeping up appearances.” We don’t have to carry around anxiety about whether we will “make it into the kingdom.” We can live carefree before God, casting all our anxieties, all our cares, upon him, because we know he cares for us (see 1 Peter 5:7).
With God, we can “get real.” We can be perfectly honest with God. We don’t have to hide anything from him. We can unload all our sinfulness, all our failures, all our fears on the One who loves us and gave himself for us—and who makes all things new.
And that's a word from our Sponsor. I’m Mike Feazell.