Seeds of Grace
Read Galatians 6:7-18
I remember when I was in fourth grade the teacher had each of us plant a bean seed in a Styrofoam cup filled with soil.
I waited and waited for what seemed like months (probably a week!). I wanted so much to help that little seed grow that I finally dug it up to see how it was doing. I saw the tiniest little root, so I put it back. Next day, I dug it up again to see what was going on. Not much progress. Buried it. Dug it up again later that day to see very little growth. Tugged on the root to help out a little. Buried it again. Repeat hourly.
You can guess how that turned out. I was the only kid in class who couldn’t even grow a bean. Why? I was trying too hard to make something happen!
When it comes to your spiritual growth, maybe you need to stop trying so hard. Stop being so introspective, digging up the bean to see what’s growing. Instead, plant good seeds, make sure they’re watered, and relax a little. In time you’ll see the crop. That’s what Paul says in today’s potentially confusing passage.
Remember, the Galatians had slipped back to legalism after starting their Christian walk by grace. So through this whole letter, Paul shows them how God is all about grace, grace, grace.
Then, toward the very end of the letter, Paul says something that may totally surprise you because it sounds like he’s going right back to the old, tired religious formula of “you get what you earn”:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Galatians 6:7–8
Uh… this sounds a lot like… earning salvation to me. So am I saved by grace, or do I reap what I sow?
Read it in context: In this passage Paul’s talking about how you can enjoy the results of God’s grace in your life. When you plant seeds of grace, you will reap the fruit of grace. When you plant seeds of destruction, you reap the fruit of destruction.
It’s God who changes you. But you can cooperate in one way: repentance. In Greek, the word for repentance literally means to “change my mind” (really, every other “spiritual discipline” is just a form of this one). This works because you always move toward whatever you focus on. Every moment spent gazing in wonder at Christ, every act of grace done in the name of Christ, every prayer spent thanking God for His grace — these are all seeds that will slowly grow as the focus of my mind is changed.
And what kind of a harvest is my goal? Not Bible study or prayer as ends in themselves — those are ways I water the seeds.
What grows from the seed? As we read yesterday: “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22–23) This is the consequence, the reward, of godly, grace-full living: I am increasingly filled with love and joy and peace and more. But if what I’m doing is not producing that harvest, then I need to rethink what I’m doing.
I think this is why some people I know — people who have the most incredible Bible knowledge and the strictest moral code — also come across as the least kind, the least gentle, the least joyful people. They’ve been focusing not on Jesus and those qualities of Christ-likeness as their intended harvest, but on the spiritual disciplines themselves or producing “results” for God.
How does this shift in focus happen? Speaking here from my own experience, you start by constantly checking the bean seeds like I did in fourth grade, wanting so badly to see spiritual growth. And because qualities like joy or kindness are hard (if not impossible) to accurately measure, you start focusing on more quantifiable things — like time spent in Bible study or prayer or on mission trips. And so you become more studious or more disciplined, since that’s what you’re measuring, but not more joyful or kind.
The lesson I learned from years spent living this way? It’s much better to relax, plant some seeds, and let them grow. And remember to keep looking at the picture on the seed packet: It’s a picture of Jesus.
As Joshua Harris comments, “Holiness isn’t a mysterious spiritual state that only an elite few can reach. It’s more than an emotion, or a resolution, or an event. Holiness is a harvest.” It takes time and an easy-going patience that is at odds with a performance-driven Christianity.
How does the concept of sowing and reaping help you understand how to grow spiritually?
How can you sow seeds of grace in your life, and in others’ lives, today?
Ask God to help you plant good seeds of grace in your soul each day.
A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. -Galatians 5:9
Read Galatians 5:5-9
If you’ve ever driven along a road in the Southern United States, you’ve seen kudzu vine climbing all over entire forests.
This invasive plant was first introduced to the U.S. in an exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Gardeners who grew kudzu as ground cover soon discovered to their chagrin that climate conditions in the South are ideal for it to grow completely out of control. The U.S. now loses over half a billion dollars a year in lost crop and control costs, thanks to kudzu! It’s tough to control because pulling down the vines does nothing to kill the plant; you have to locate and sever the “root crown” from the rest of the vine, and this root crown is often hidden.
Well, performance-orientation is the kudzu vine of Christianity.
It’s a non-native intruder that starts small but soon completely takes over, smothering every part of the Christian life: daily devotions that started as a time of refreshment become dry daily duty; church attendance becomes less about celebrating God’s lavish love than about learning how to be better people; even parenting, which should be inspired by God the Father’s grace toward us, becomes performance-driven and guilt-inducing. It’s the little yeast that works through the whole batch of dough, completely changing it.
As the author to the Hebrews warns, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (Hebrews 12:15)
My friend Ray Johnston points out three results of “missing grace”:
In each case, they’re “bitter roots.” I get bitter toward myself, or toward others, or toward God.
And like kudzu, performance-orientation is tough to kill. You have to aim for the “root crown”: the idea that I can, in any way, earn part of my salvation or earn more of God’s love. Once I allow this as a possibility, the climate is right for performance-orientation to take over everything.
I protect against that idea by refreshing myself repeatedly with the truth of grace: There is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and there is nothing I can do to make God love me less. He promises that He loves me and saves me with His infinite, unconditional, all-sufficient grace!
One of the most tragic errors that churches often make is to over-emphasize the work that believers should be doing for God. That is fertile ground for the vine of performance-orientation. As Chuck Smith puts it in his book Why Grace Changes Everything:
"How many times have you heard heavy, condemning sermons that tell you, “You ought to be praying more! You ought to be giving more! You ought to be witnessing more, or serving God on some committee more!” How often do you go to church looking for encouragement only to hear about your failure and how disappointed God must be in you?
The last thing I need is for someone to lay a heavy burden on me about my failures. I know I ought to be doing more. No one needs to tell me I don’t read my Bible enough or pray enough. All I get from such messages is a huge guilt complex. My frustration increases because I really want to love God more, to pray more, to have a deeper fellowship with Him. When we place our emphasis on areas of failure, we end up creating defeated, discouraged Christians who give up and drop out of the race."
Look at the New Testament letters and you will see a totally different emphasis. Again and again, they lay a foundation not of what we ought to be doing for God, but what God has already done for us!
But you may be wondering, “If it’s not about my performance, then how does grace-oriented Christianity change my life? If I am saved by grace, why does being a Christian make me so tired? What am I doing wrong? Turn the page.
Which of the three results of missing grace have you struggled with most?
How does missing the grace of God lead to “bitter” roots?
Ask God to help you see if you are missing the grace of God in some area of your life now, using the three results of missing grace as a template: Are you a perfectionist, judgmental, or legalistic? Ask God to show you if you have a “bitter root.” Ask Him to help you root it out.
Your Father's Voice
A four-year old girl was overheard whispering into her newborn baby brother's ear. "Baby," she whispers, "tell me wha tGod sounds like. I am starting to forget." -Quoted in Robert Bensen, Between the Dream and the Coming True, p. 55
Read Galatians 4:1-7 & 5:1-4
When we‘re newborn baby Christians we love to listen to our Heavenly Father’s voice as he sings us grace-songs. But as we grow older in our faith we sometimes forget what He really sounds like. I know I did.
As a child I was delighted to accept God’s free gift of salvation, because, like most little kids, there really wasn’t a lot I could do for myself — in any way. I needed a boost to reach the water fountain, so I sure wasn’t going to think twice when told I needed a boost to reach heaven. So how did I spiral down from there to the point that my religiosity was crippling my spirit?
There were many contributing factors, among them the OCD I already mentioned. But another was even more insidious: I really enjoyed achieving excellence. I was an honor student who liked working hard, and I enjoyed the rewards of hard work. Slowly, without even realizing it, I allowed that to subtly change the emphasis of my faith from grace to works. I figured that since God was perfect, He appreciated excellence, and the more excellent I was, the more He’d appreciate me. Specifically, if I were excellent at keeping religious rules (even those imposed by human leaders) and religious restrictions (such as resting on the Sabbath), I would really be loved! I’d heard lots of messages condemning “lukewarm faith” so I determined I would burn hot for God — as evidenced by my hard work for Him (Except for on the Sabbath! When I would rest hard for Him!).
But in today’s passage, Paul says this kind of thinking is “slavery.” He even says you can become “alienated from Christ” by your hard religious work! That was me: Rather than enjoying my Father, I began to imagine Him as a hard-to-please employer. I thought I heard mostly condemnation from Him; I was never really at peace; I felt like I ought to do more, could do more, should do more… And instead of asking whether I was in theological error, I began to resent Him just like an under-appreciated employee! I even would go “off the reservation” into my own personal Mardi Gras of indulgence once in a while because my whole life felt like one long Lenten fast. Then I’d crawl back feeling guiltier than ever.
But listen to the real voice of God again: “…you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:7) I still remember how, when I read that passage the night of my “re-rebirth,” I wept. No longer a slave, but a son! There’s a big difference: A slave is always worried he’ll displease his master; a child is secure in the love of his family.
My friend Mike Yaconelli once led a one-day church retreat where attenders read different Scriptures and wrote down what they thought God might say to them today. When they were asked to read their compositions aloud, the adults found it difficult, so Janie, a 17-year-old high school girl, volunteered to read hers first. Here is her dialogue with God as recorded in Mike’s book Dangerous Wonder, starting with her voice, followed by what she imagines God would say, based on Scripture:
i feel awkward
because it’s been so long since i’ve been near you
i’ve missed you too;
i think about you every day.
But i’ve messed up;
i’ve done a lot of things that i regret
it’s okay, child;
i forgive you.
i don’t understand
i turn away, i ignore you…
i’m still here
right beside you.
i try to live without you
even though i know deep inside that you’re still a part of me
you don’t have to make yourself lovable;
i love you how you are.
even after everything i’ve done, and after everything that has happened;
would it offend you if i called you bizarre?
i am bizarre;
more so than you’ll ever know.
this may seem strange but
could i please ask you to hold me, for a little while?
my child, i’ve been waiting for you
with outstretched arms.
Mike says that after Janie read her dialogue there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, and all the adults said, “I’m not reading mine.”
Christianity really isn’t so complicated. You can learn once again to hear the grace-filled whisper of God.
Do you tend to think of yourself as God’s slave, God’s child, or some combination?
Read Galatians 4:5–7 out loud, but personalize it, saying your name at each pronoun.
Today, pray the prayer from Dr. Seamands’ book: ”Father, dear Father, I am your child, and I’m going to live and feel like one!”
What Kind of Commitment?
Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
Read Galatians 3:1-10
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area I often heard the Oakland Raiders’ team motto, “Commitment To Excellence.”
That could have been my personal motto as a Christian! I was committed to do better. And when I inevitably failed, I would recommit my life to trying harder for Jesus. That commit-fail-recommit cycle was my lifelong pattern. And it wasn’t working.
I still believe God wants people to commit their lives to Him. But there’s a lot of confusion about the definition of commitment.
In English, “commitment” has two definitions that are almost opposites. “Commitment” can mean trying harder (as in the Raiders’ motto) or it can mean the exact opposite (as in the Raiders’ play on the field! Just kidding!).
Here’s an example of the second kind of commitment: When my wife committed herself to the care of the doctor before her surgery (gall bladder surgery if you must know, and she’s fine, thank God!), her commitment meant that she surrendered control to the surgeon. She yielded. She trusted the doctor entirely. She certainly wasn’t on the operating room table saying, “I’m trying real hard to give him my gall bladder! Ooomph!” No — she wasn’t even awake!
It’s that second kind of commitment that God wants me to make to Him.
When I committed my life to Jesus Christ, I surrendered my will entirely to His care. Having proven that my self-efforts were incapable of producing life-saving change, I gave up to God and had a spiritual rebirth. Most Christians understand that part. But here’s where we go wrong: the key to growing my character is to remain committed, in the second sense of the word, to His care.
As Paul points out in today’s verse, the Galatians had slipped from the second definition of commitment back to the first. Having started their Christian lives by grace, they were now trying to get the rest of the way to Christ-like character through mere human effort, just as they had been living — without success — before they became Christians.
I really get that. For many years my faith, which I called Christianity, was really Churchianity: just garden-variety “try harder” religion based on rules and human effort. It had a thin veneer of Christian theology. I had trusted in Christ to save me from sin. But after that, I lived like I was on my own again.
Instead of a whole new way of thinking and living, I had just made a short detour from the standard religious road of self-effort. I did “accept Jesus.” Then I was right back at it, doing just what I had always done: trying harder to do more. My efforts were really indistinguishable from any devout performer in any other religious system.
But real Christianity is something else: “We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6)
Notice how Paul says we still serve, but we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not the old way of the written code. My entire motivation for obedience has changed from rule-keeping to a more mature desire to grow closer to the God who lavishes His love on me! More on that tomorrow!
Which definition of “commitment” is dominant in your life?
Why is it so easy for Christians to slip from the second definition of “commitment”(yielding) back to the first (trying hard)?
Today, yield your life to God, maybe for the first time or as a re-surrender. Give to Him the areas of worry or compulsion, or addiction you are struggling with today.
The Guardian of Grace
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. -Galatians 1:6-7
Read Galatians 1:3-7
In the first week of Grace Immersion you saw how Jesus taught against performance-driven religion at every turn. But then yesterday you saw this teaching in danger of being lost almost immediately as the early church drifted back to legalism.
So God raised up a very unusual man to protect this legacy: a Pharisee, of all people, named Saul — a guy who had been absolutely opposed to the Christians until his sudden conversion. His named changed to Paul, this former teacher of religious law became the unlikeliest champion of grace!
In fact you could call Paul the Apostle of Grace. Of the 155 times the New Testament uses the word grace, 133 are found in his writings. Grace opens his letters, grace closes his letters, and grace is the point of everything in between. Paul enthusiastically makes one point over and over again in his biblical writings: Grace alone is, was, and always will be the basis of our relationship with God.
So it’s like some kind of sad reverse miracle that this constant emphasis on grace is lost on so many people who conclude Christianity means the exact opposite. Ask most people what the Bible teaches and you’ll get a variation on the idea, “Do less bad things and more good things, and then you’ll please God and go to heaven.”
This exact confusion was happening even in the churches Paul helped start.
As he says in today’s verses, he is “astonished” that the Galatians are “so quickly deserting” the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel. As he adds, it’s really “no gospel at all” because gospel means good news, and it’s not good news to hear that you have to work your way to heaven!
So what happened to the Galatians? Some teachers came along and taught a doctrine you could label Christ Plus: Jesus died for your sins, but now there are a bunch of extra religious hoops for you to jump through. You might be forgiven by God’s grace, but you continue on from there with your own hard work. This subtle and insidious teaching poisons the minds of many Christians today, just as it did in Paul’s day.
In fact, maybe your mind is poisoned. Maybe you picked up this book reluctantly, thinking, “Grace? That’s baby Christian stuff. ‘Jesus loves me’ — this I know, already! I got the idea that I’m saved by grace way back when I first believed. Nothing for me to learn here.”
I beg to differ. In my observation, many, if not most, of the Christians I know have some concept of grace in their heads, but it hasn’t really moved to their hearts. They still feel condemned at times by God; they still suspect their performance earns them more of God’s love; they only think of grace as what saved them, but now their hard work does the rest. In fact, for them the gospel has been perverted into something that really is not gospel at all.
It’s interesting that Paul opens most of his letters with the phrase “grace and peace to you.” When you get grace, really understand it, you also experience peace, real peace, deep down in your soul. So how’s your peace level?
As you continue this Grace Immersion with a look at how Paul clarifies and champions the concept of grace, I know you’ll find your peace level growing!
How does an understanding of grace lead to peace?
Do you think some of the lack of peace you may be experiencing is tied to a lack of understanding about grace?
Ask God to help you see the full, dynamic, outrageous truth of the gospel of grace during this Grace Immersion. Ask God to deliver you from a watered-down grace or grace mixed with human messages.
Give Me Liberty!
Read Acts 15:1-11
My wife is related to Patrick Henry, one of the founding fathers of the United States. His most famous moment came on March 23, 1775, when he addressed the Virginia Convention at a dramatic crossroads in American history: “If we wish to be free, we must fight!” he said. “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Sometimes you have to fight for freedom.
Today’s verses are thrilling for me because they describe a similar drama swirling around one of the most important decisions in the history of the Christian church — maybe the most important decision of all.
Until this moment disciples of Jesus were considered by most people as a sort of branch of Judaism. Then something surprising happens: People of other religions start to become followers of Jesus in great numbers.
So naturally many of the first generation of Christians insist that these new converts follow the traditional Jewish religious rules, especially those in the Hebrew Scriptures. This includes all the dietary restrictions for kosher food, circumcision of males, rules for appropriate dress, observing holy days, etc., etc.
But Paul (more on him tomorrow) and Barnabas, two upstart Christian teachers who’ve been finding eager audiences among non-Jews, disagree. They see Jesus not only as a Jewish Messiah, but as the Messiah for the entire world. If this is so, they argue, why would Jesus care if these new non-Jewish believers adopt Jewish religious customs? They point to Christ’s own teaching about the dangers of legalism and performance-oriented religion. What matters is not circumcision or diet or dress or holidays, they assert. What matters is “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6b). Jews, Gentiles, slaves, freemen — they are all welcomed in by grace, through faith.
This debate erupts into a controversy that threatens to blow apart the whole movement. So Paul, Barnabas, and some of the other leaders go to Jerusalem, center of the early church. There they meet with elders including none other than Peter, the well-known disciple of Jesus Himself, and James the half-brother of Jesus.
Imagine the tension as Paul makes his case. Then these icons of the faith stand up… and stun many in Jerusalem by taking Paul’s side!
In fact Peter rebukes the religiosity of those scrupulously applying their own traditions to the Gentiles: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Acts 15:10–11
And James agrees: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19)
This was one of the most important events in the history of the early church because it set the DNA for the faith: Authentic, vintage Christianity was to be about grace, not law; faith, not works.
You can understand why Paul, having fought for this freedom at the Jerusalem council and believing he had achieved victory, was upset when, as he planted new churches, religious legalizers simply followed in his tracks and taught the naive new believers the very theology that was condemned by Peter and James!
That’s what’s behind the emotion in so many of his letters to these young communities of believers, like the letters to the Galatians and Colossians. Paul cries “Liberty!” in the face of legalism.
We’ll be looking at Paul’s Patrick Henry–like passion this week!
Why would people turn back to religious legalism after being taught grace (like many of Paul’s early converts did)? What’s the appeal?
Do churches today ever unwittingly “make it difficult” for people turning to faith by putting on them heavy religious burdens? How so?
The decision of Peter and James was a dramatic one, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. What teachings of Jesus — or episodes from their own lives — could have led them to their conclusion that everyone is saved by grace, not works? (Review last week’s devotions for clues.)
Ask God to help you stay free from the bondage of legalism. Pray specifically for new believers in your church. Ask God to help them stay devoted in a simple and pure way to Jesus Christ, without unnecessary religious burdens that could steal their joy.