Monday, November 16, 2015

Present Perfect

Everybody likes gifts, they say. Still, some are better than others.

A funny story: My in-laws were on their way to a wedding. Along the roadside, a hack artist was selling a number of truly horrible original oil paintings. (Doubtless this poor soul laboured under the delusion he was some sort of Michelangelo.) Anyway, my relatives pulled over for a look. These ‘masterpieces’ were supposed to be landscapes, but they all looked like they’d been painted with a really fat brush using earth tones, pale blues and dark blacks. (If you imagine an explosion in a factory that produces toothpaste, peanut butter and licorice, you’ve roughly got the aesthetic here.)

My in-laws were amused. They chose the most disastrous effort of the lot, and paid for it. Then they took it to the wedding, and had all the guests sign in around the frame. At the reception, they presented it to the wedding couple with great pomp and ceremony, treating the painting as if it were the Mona Lisa. In a brilliant final touch, they reminded the couple that it had the names of all their friends and relatives on it, so of course the painting would be treasured forever, and everyone who came to visit would look for it on the living room wall ...

Fortunately, the groom was a member of the family, and knew his uncles’ sense of humour all too well. He could get the joke and explain it to his horrified bride. As a matter of fact, the trick became a sort of family tradition, and was recycled many times at other weddings. Of course, by now everybody knows what’s coming. It’s all in good, clean fun.

Gifts That Don’t Give

What’s a real gift, and what is not? I’m not always sure. I’ve received more than a few things that I wasn’t sure I really wanted: ugly sweaters, retro furniture, bizarre handicrafts, ceramic figurines, a pet goldfish … that sort of thing. Some things are suitable for giving, and some are just not.

A really bizarre one is a car. When I first saw those ads that companies like Mercedes and Lexus have nowadays — you know, the ones that show the car sitting in a driveway with a big red bow on the roof, and the overwhelmed recipient dancing in the driveway — I remember thinking, “What a bizarre gift!”

After all, a car may start free, but it sure doesn’t stay free.

I’m not sure I’d want one. Somebody’s got to take care of that thing. It’s got to be plated, insured, gassed up, oiled, tuned, maintained, serviced, repaired and protected from the elements, the birds, road hazards and vandals. It will need tires, spark plugs, tune ups, light bulbs, wiper blades and scratch repairs. It comes with a whole lot of additional responsibilities plus a lot of new liabilities.

I wondered, if a wife “buys” her husband a car, is he supposed to be happy that their family budget is now saddled with the payments? They now have an additional vehicle; how will they now afford what they apparently could not afford before? What if the husband doesn’t like it? Does he have to fake that he does? Can they return it? Do they lose money if they do?

I’m not sure I’d want such a gift … at least, not if it came with so many strings attached. Gifts are supposed to bring blessing, not stress. They’re supposed to enrich you, not impoverish you. And they’re supposed to be free.

But a car looks to me like “The gift that just keeps on taking”. I could imagine the conversation a car recipient might have with his or her colleagues: “Yeah, my wife bought me a car … I’m going to be paying that thing off forever. And people scratch new cars, so I’m afraid to park it anywhere. Did you know the oil changes are $85 each? And insurance, don’t get me started. I think we’re out of luck for a vacation this year … but it was a really nice thought”.

Can’t see it, myself.

If a gift starts off free, it ought to stay free. If it doesn’t, it was never really a gift at all. That’s my theory.

Start Free, Stay Free

I think Paul had something similar in mind when he spoke to the Galatians about a big mistake they were about to make. They’d decided that salvation was by grace, a gift of God through faith, and entirely free; but then they turned around and decided that once you were saved you had to get busy and do a whole lot of works.

Why had they decided that? Well, it seemed like common sense. God wouldn’t save you and then want you to go on sinning, right? He’d want you to move on, living a more and more admirable and moral life. You were saved by grace, they decided, but you had to be perfected by works. So hey, let’s get busy, they said.

But Paul called them on it. He pulled them up short with a really straightforward question, one designed not just to appeal to the human sense of things but to logic and the truth of the gospel. He posed this to them:
“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
Duh. Of course not. Use your common sense.

How did they begin? Was it not by despairing of works? Was it not by giving up on their own efforts and prospects for perfection, and casting themselves on the saving mercy of God? Was it not entirely an act of faith in the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ? Was it not a calling for the Savior to save them from the sinfulness they could not shake by themselves? Was it not a looking to his Spirit to produce newness of life in them, and to set them free in his marvelous light?

If it was not, then they were not saved. For salvation is only on the basis of faith, and is contingent on no work of man at all. And yet, somehow the Galatians had lost that theme. No wonder Paul could essentially say, “In light of this, folks, I’m really worried about you”.

But, he asked them, if that’s how salvation had begun for them, then how was it that they were turning back to the old failed strategy of trying to perfect themselves? How did that square with where they’d begun? If works failed them for salvation, how could the same dead works be any more effective as an agent of transformation afterward?

In short, should not a change that was first produced by the Spirit of God also be carried through by the Spirit of God? Of course! He who had begun a good work in them would himself perfect that work. Having begun by the Spirit, they would never be perfected by the flesh.

The Gift We Keep Trying to Pay For

It’s funny how many of us still don’t get the point. A lot of people think that we got saved in the first place so we would be able to keep the Law. Not true: the Law only ever told us how far short of the mark we were; but Law itself never came with any power to meet its demands.

Others people make the same mistake more subtly. They suppose that while the Law might not be our issue, we ought to continue to strive really hard to please God on our own steam. We ought to strive to do good works, they say, and so please God and prove — at least to our own satisfaction — that we are true children of God. In fact, they say, only those who “persevere” in such a way have salvation at all.

Well, I agree that as Christians we need to do good works. I would also concede that, if we don’t, we have good reason for looking askance at our original profession, wondering if we were sincere in faith. All fine and dandy. But the error is in thinking that security comes from “perseverance”; for perseverance is just a man-made work like any other. Unless it is backed by the power of the Spirit of God, it has no more power or utility than any other work of the flesh. It won’t perfect you. Only being indwelt by the Spirit of God will produce the perfecting of the Christian life.

So the question is not, “Are you persevering”, but “In what are you persevering?”

Are you continuing in your own efforts to guarantee your own salvation? Are you trying to produce your own security? Then you’re wasting your time. You have no such power. But are you being led by the Spirit? Are you walking in daily dependence on the power of the risen Christ, not perfecting yourself but being perfected by his life? Then you are truly saved, secured and on the road to being perfected.


Any objection? “Aha”, someone might say, “are you saying that Christians don’t need to try to live good, moral lives?” No, I’m not saying that. “Are you saying someone could live like a hellion and still go to heaven?” No, I’m not saying that either. But I am saying that while works are good in themselves, they have no bearing on your heavenly destiny — not at the moment of salvation, nor at any time after that.

Maybe I can illustrate.

Suppose you’re out working in your back yard. Your neighbour comes running over to you, and shouts, “Hey, do you know your house is on fire?”

You turn. What do you look for first?

Smoke, of course.

But why? Your neighbour didn’t say, “Your house is on smoke”. He said, “fire”. So why are you looking for smoke?

It’s because smoke is the testimony of fire. Smoke is not fire. But where fire is burning, smoke is quickly produced. You know this, so you’re looking not for fire but for the sign of fire.

Works do not save. They are smoke. Faith saves. That’s the fire. But just as smoke will soon be along when fire is burning, so good works will appear naturally, as a byproduct of a new life in Christ. And just as fire grows and produces more smoke, so too will your life produce more and more good works as your relationship to Christ grows.


The same power that produced your salvation will also produce your new life. You have begun by the Spirit; you will not be perfected by fleshly efforts to be a good person. You will not confirm your salvation by the works of your hands. You will never have assurance from your own actions.

It is from the Lord that we have all things for life and godliness.

Everything comes from the life of Christ.

Get closer to him.

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