Tuesday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • We interview Bryan Sederwall about the ministry of the Denver Dream Center. “Faith communities need to identity concerns in their cities and then establish a cause.”
  • Chris Colvin suggests different ways of saying “Thank you!” to donors. “If you want to see increased giving, watch occasional givers become consistent givers and instill a sense of purpose in your offerings, a ‘thank you’ is one of the best instruments you can employ.”
  • Paul Franks reviews Tactics, an apologetics book and small-group curriculum by Greg Koukl. “When we do begin to talk about our faith, it’s easy to find ourselves on the defensive.” Reading and using Tactics helps overcome that problem.
  • Here’s an encouraging note: “Even in an increasingly secular culture, about half of U.S. adults still bow their heads to pray when they sit down to a meal.”

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

The Divine Gratuity (Ephesians 3.20–21)


valentin_paul_writing1800x1337

SCRIPTURE READING

Ephesians 3.20–21:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

DEVOTIONAL THOUGHT

Are you a generous tipper?

When I was growing up, my family ate out at restaurants a lot. Usually, the service was adequate. Sometimes it was excellent. On a few memorable occasions it was downright awful. Regardless, we made a practice of tipping the wait staff well. Generosity in such cases reflects who the tipper is, rather than what the tippee deserves.

Tipping, in other words, is a lot like grace. When you eat out, you don’t have to tip your server. You have satisfied the demands of the law simply by paying your bill. But tipping goes above and beyond what you are required to do. In fact, gratuity (the fancy word for tip) derives from gratia (the Latin word for “grace”).

Is God a good tipper?

Obviously, we’re not very good servants to him. Spiritually speaking, we serve up his food late, cold, and with attitude, if we serve it at all. God could satisfy the demands of the law by giving us merely what we deserve. But does he give us anything more? And if so, how much more? Does he nickel and dime us with grace, or does he “tip the check”? (Tipping the check means leaving a tip at least as large as your bill.)

In Ephesians 3.20–21, Paul writes: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” There are three important phrases here:

To him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. I am fascinated by the superlatives both in verse 21 and throughout Ephesians. We have been blessed with “every spiritual blessing” (1.3). God “lavished upon us” “the riches of his grace” (1.7, 8). Paul writes of “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” and “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us” (1.18, 19). He describes God as being “rich in mercy” and having “great love” for us (2.4). He promises that in eternity, God will show us “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (2.7). He writes about “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3.8). The words rich and riches show up a lot in Paul’s vocabulary of grace. If you were a server, and billionaire Bill Gates were you customer, I’m sure you could imagine a pretty sizable tip. Compared to God, however, Bill Gates is a cheapskate. You can’t even imagine how gratuitous God is!

The power at work within us. God does not merely give us grace and walk away. He gives us the power to change. The grace of forgiveness becomes the grace of transformation.

To him be glory in the church. A good tip always makes a server smile. Grace does the same for sinners, but grace is “forever and ever.”

Grace as Salvation and Spiritual Gift (Ephesians 3.7–13)


valentin_paul_writing1800x1337

SCRIPTURE READING

Ephesians 3.7–13:

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

DEVOTIONAL THOUGHT

What is grace?

It is God’s unmerited favor toward sinners. God treats us better than we deserve. This is the kind of grace Paul has in mind when he writes, “by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2.5, 8). It includes all the love, acceptance, and forgiveness God gives us through Jesus Christ.

And yet, love, acceptance, and forgiveness do not exhaust the meaning of grace. In Ephesians 3.7–13, Paul writes about his mission to the Gentiles as a grace given to him:

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

With these words in mind, we can expand on our definition of grace. It is God’s unmerited favor toward sinners, and it is also his power at work in them to bless others. Consequently, when we speak of grace, we should speak of what God gives to us and what God gives through us. The former is salvation; the latter is a spiritual gift.

Notice several important truths about spiritual gifts:

  1. Their source is God. Paul writes about “the working of [God’s] power.” His words warn us about using our spiritual gifts without rooting them in spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and meditation, which keep us connected to our divine power source.
  2. They are highly individualized. Paul writes of the grace given “to me.” His spiritual gift was unique to him, just as your gift is unique to you.
  3. They require humility. Paul writes, “I am the very least of all the saints.” Some Christians get carried away with their own talents, and forget that their spiritual gift is also an undeserved divine favor. Paul never made that mistake.
  4. They promote enlightenment. All spiritual gifts demonstrate to a watching world “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Some do this with words, others with actions. We should keep in mind here the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel everywhere; when necessary, use words.”
  5. They require perseverance. Paul’s use of his spiritual gift brought him into conflict with the political and religious leaders of his day. But he willingly suffered because of the benefits that flowed from God through him to others. His “suffering” was their “glory.” Serving others is not always easy, but it is always worth the effort.

So, receive God’s grace. Then pass it along.

The Good News about God’s Grace (Ephesians 2.4–7)


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SCRIPTURE READING

Ephesians 2.4­–7

DEVOTIONAL THOUGHT

According to Ephesians 2.1–3, we are “dead” in sin. The metaphor is an apt one. A dead person is physically unable to do anything except rot. Similarly, a spiritually dead person is incapable of saving himself. All he can do is experience further moral and spiritual decay. Our spiritual death is the bad news we need to hear about ourselves first. But it is not the last word on the subject. The last word is grace.

Here’s how Paul describes the good news:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2.4–7).

Conjunctions are important words in the Bible, especially in these verses. The first word of verses 4–7 is but, a conjunction that implies a strong exception to the words that precede it. And that is exactly what grace is: God’s strong exception to the deadness of our spiritual condition. Our deaths are not something that he is willing to tolerate.

Why is he unwilling? Because of our innate goodness? Obviously not! If we were innately good, we would not be spiritually dead. Instead, God takes strong exception to our spiritual deadness because he is “rich in mercy” and “because of the great love with which he loved us” (verse 4).

Now, surely you can see that such a love is amazing. It is one thing to love a living, breathing person, but another thing entirely to love a rotting corpse. It is one thing to love those who “follow” you, but we “follow” God’s enemies: “the course of this world” and “the prince of the power of the air” (verse 2). And it is one thing to love people with healthy, normal desires, but we gratify “the desires of the body [literally, flesh] and the mind” (verse 3). God’s love for us is amazing precisely because it is the exact opposite of what we deserve. And that is how theologians define grace, as God’s undeserved or unmerited favor.

How does God give us this grace? Through Jesus Christ, who—in the immortal words of Charles Wesley—“breaks the power of cancelled sin” by his death and resurrection. Our sin is canceled because of Christ’s death, which pays the penalty for our spiritual crimes: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1.7). But Christ’s resurrection breaks sin’s power over our lives. We are no longer “dead in sin” but “alive together with Christ” (verse 5).

Grace is God’s “mercy,” “great love” (verse 4), and “kindness” (verse 7) toward people—like us—who deserve the opposite. No wonder it is “immeasurable.” And such good news!

What Legalists and Atheists Cannot Understand: Grace


Over at The Gospel Coalition, Chris Castaldo reminds us that how we Christians see God impacts how others see our God:

The parable [of the prodigal son] ends there. Unlike the earlier stories, there is no explicit lesson from Jesus. We don’t know whether the formerly lost son’s big brother joins in the celebration, though it is clear that he should. The point, you see, is not bowing to some crabbed notion of fairness, but losing ourselves in God’s grand graciousness. Will the son forsake his pride and jealousy and become more like his gracious father? Will the Pharisees and scribes?

The question also applies to us, especially to those of us who are considered religious leaders, who faithfully serve and obey God. Have we entertained the same kinds of warped notions about God? Do we secretly feel that serving the Lord is duty that deserves some sort of reward? If so, are we dangerously close to a soul-stifling legalism? When a sinner repents after a lifetime of dissipation, are we happy about a new brother or sister in Christ, or are we unhappy that he or she “got away with it”?

In these stories, we learn that celebration is the natural response of heaven to a lost sinner being found. Do we feel the same way? I am reminded of a message by Tony Campolo, “The Kingdom of God Is a Party.” While the kingdom is surely more than that, it cannot be less.

Christopher Hitchens was wrong. God is no cosmic tyrant. To entertain this kind of slur even for a moment dishonors the Lord and contradicts the good news we have been sent to share. So as we persevere in doing the good and hard work of the kingdom, let us never forget that if we see our gracious God as he is, chances are that others will see him that way, too.

Grace and Peace to You (1 Thessalonians 1:1c)


Letters typically begin with a greeting.

In New Testament times, Greek-speaking writers began their letters with the word chairein, “Greetings!” (e.g., Acts 15:23, 23:26; James 1:1). Paul, who wrote his letters in Greek, transformed this epistolary convention by replacing chairein with the similar looking and sounding charis in the greeting of all his letters, and by adding eirēnē. So, this is the standard greeting in Paul’s letters: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”[1]

Paul’s standard greeting is a wonderful way for Christians to begin their letters (or emails) to other people.

For one thing, it perpetrates a little theology by defining who God is. He is “our Father,” that is, the Creator of the cosmos (Acts 17:28), the First Person of the Trinity (John 5:18), and the Adoptive Parent of all who believe in him (Eph. 1:5). Paul further describes God using the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ.” The word Lord names Jesus’s divinity. He is the Second Person of the Trinity (Phil. 2:9-11, cf. Isa. 45:23). The word Christ names Jesus’s purpose. He is “the Messiah, the Lord”—the one whose coming into the world brings “good news of great joy to all people” (Luke  2:10,11). And finally, this Divine Person, this Promised Messiah is simple Jesus of Nazareth, who “died for our sins according to the Scriptures, …was buried, …was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and … appeared to [Peter], and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3–5).

For another thing, Paul’s standard greeting perpetrates a little soteriology—i.e., the doctrine of salvation—by identifying the source (grace) and result (peace) of God’s saving work in our lives. Charis means “favor,” and grace is God’s unmerited favor, his decision to love, redeem, forgive, and bless sinners who don’t deserve any of those things. “It is by grace you have been saved,” Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8. Peace has three dimensions: We have peace with God (Rom. 5:1), with one another (Eph. 2:14–18), and within ourselves (Rom. 8:6).

The doctrine of God and the doctrine of salvation in the simple greeting of a letter!

But here’s the kicker: In 1 Thessalonians 1:1—and there alone in the greeting of all his letters—Paul simply wrote, “Grace and peace to you.” He left out “from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul assumed the Thessalonians knew the ultimate source and result of God’s saving work. He had founded their church, after all (Acts 17:1–9).

So why did he leave out the rich bits of theology and soteriology? Because it is one thing to wish God would give people his grace and peace, and another thing to give them your own grace and peace. Paul wants us to be Christians who don’t talk about God one way and then act toward people another way. He wants us to imitate God’s way of doing things in everything we do.

So, grace and peace to you…from me. Please pass them along to others!

President Obama’s Remarks at the 2nd Annual Easter Prayer Breakfast


This morning, President Obama delivered the following remarks at the 2nd Annual Easter Prayer Breakfast. I’ve bolded my favorites.

_____

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

April 19, 2011

Remarks by the President at Easter Prayer Breakfast

East Room

8:39 A.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  Please, please have a seat.

Well, it is absolutely wonderful to be here with all of you today.  I see so many good friends all around the room.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge one particular member of my administration who I’m extraordinarily proud of and does not get much credit, and that is USAID Administrator, Dr. Raj Shah, who is doing great work with faith leaders.  (Applause.)  Where’s Raj?  Where is he?  There he is right there.  Raj is doing great work with faith leaders on our Feed the Future global hunger program, as well as on a host of other issues.  We could not be prouder of the work that he’s doing.  I also want to acknowledge Congressman Mike McIntyre and his wife, Dee.  (Applause.)  Mike — as some of you know, obviously, North Carolina was ravaged by storms this past weekend, and our thoughts and prayers are with all the families who have been affected down there.  I know that Mike will be helping those communities rebuild after the devastation.

To all the faith leaders and the distinguished guests that are here today, welcome to our second annual — I’m going to make it annual, why not?  (Laughter and applause.)  Our second Easter Prayer Breakfast.  The Easter Egg Roll, that’s well established.  (Laughter.)  The Prayer Breakfast we started last year, in part because it gave me a good excuse to bring together people who have been such extraordinary influences in my life and such great friends.  And it gives me a chance to meet and make some new friends here in the White House.

I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason -– because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection — something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective. 

We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work.  And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways.  And I admit that my plate has been full as well.  (Laughter.)  The inbox keeps on accumulating.  (Laughter.)

But then comes Holy Week.  The triumph of Palm Sunday.  The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross.

And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

In the words of the book Isaiah:  “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities:  the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this “Amazing Grace” calls me to reflect.  And it calls me to pray.  It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short.  It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son — his Son and our Savior.

And that’s why we have this breakfast.  Because in the middle of critical national debates, in the middle of our busy lives, we must always make sure that we are keeping things in perspective.  Children help do that.  (Laughter.)  A strong spouse helps do that.  But nothing beats scripture and the reminder of the eternal.

So I’m honored that all of you have come here this Holy Week to join me in a spirit of prayer, and I pray that our time here this morning will strengthen us, both individually as believers and as Americans.  And with that, let me introduce my good friend, Bishop Vashti McKenzie, for our opening prayer.  (Applause.)

END
8:45 A.M. EDT

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