The church sanctuary needed painting today. I hate painting. I’ve painted so many houses some various shade of tan that I could probably cut in the White House blindfolded. But it needed to be done, so I spent four hours doing the detailed lines on our two-toned greyscale sanctuary paint scheme.
Honestly, I really really wanted to dodge it. I almost did. And I could have done so while covering myself with spiritual-sounding mitigating circumstances that would have made me appear holy. I have to read for my Hermeneutics class. (Would you really want me to misinterpret the Scriptures and lead people astray in my future pastoral ministry?!?) I have to work on summarizing the books I’m researching for the Acts 29 church replanting curriculum that my church is developing. (Would you have me shirk my responsibilities, which undoubtedly would destroy hundreds of church plants around the world?!?) I just really need to spend some time in the Word, coming back from vacation with my family. (Would you value a building’s aesthetics over my personal spiritual health?!?)
And then there’s even Scripture. Acts 6:2&4 “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables…But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Right? I mean, let the others paint the sanctuary. I’m in seminary; I have to study.
The simple truth is this: If you’re excusing yourself from service by claiming what the apostles claimed, you had better be doing what the apostles did. Apostle-in-training doesn’t cut it. Because if you aren’t among the elders, your job in the church is not the ministry of the word and prayer. Your job is serving in whatever way you have to so your pastor doesn’t have to be standing on the scaffolding with a paint brush in one hand and a commentary in the other. And if we’re being realistic, dodging the dirtywork probably isn’t leading you to spend that time on your knees begging God to weave His grace within the people you share community with.
I don’t have the spiritual gift of painting. But I’ll paint. A half dozen on Sunday morning don’t have the spiritual gift of changing diapers. But they’ll be right there serving in the nursery. I wonder if sometimes we mistreat the idea of “spiritual gifting” to excuse ourselves from doing things we are simply too lazy or too terrified to do.
Following Christ means death to self. I think that’s easy to get on the macro level. If some crazed shooter picks Crossing Church to show up to some Sunday morning and my choice becomes deny or die, I’m pretty sure I know which one I’m choosing. That’s not a heroic thing to say; it’s the gut-level response of every Christian. When death equals heaven, your priorities about survival get a little redefined.
And yet, when death to self does not actually mean a real, call-the-mortician kind of death but rather “inconvenience” or “discomfort,” that’s when the choice becomes hard. When the stakes are not so high, my defenses are lowered and the idol of self-protection and self-worship seizes my soul. Eve wouldn’t have worshipped Satan, but when the stakes were lowered and she was blind to the reality of what was going on in her heart she was entirely willing to eat a piece of fruit.
I’m not entirely sure how to wrap this up. Somehow I got from painting to martyrdom to the fall of mankind. I guess my point is this. To my friends who are studying to be pastors, we’ve got to earn our stripes. If we are to be given much, we must first be faithful with little.
“Sir, you are using a different dictionary,” I said to the man standing before me yesterday evening.
The conversation had begun when he had asked for a knife from the hotel kitchen to slice his loaf of french bread with. He noticed my copy of How to Read a Book sitting on the front desk counter and asked if I was reading it for an English class. No, for a Biblical Hermeneutics class – how to study and interpret the Bible. He asked if I was to be a pastor. Yes.
“How about you, sir? Are you religious?” I asked.
“I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins.”
“What church are you a part of?”
“Latter Day Saints…What do you think of us?”
I could not tell him anything other than the truth. I would look upon my hands come judgment day and see them covered in his blood should I not as Ezekiel 33’s watchmen condemn my cowardice.
“Sir, I believe that you are not Christians, that you are not saved.”
“I’ve agreed with everything you’ve said so far.”
“Sir, you are using a different dictionary. How I define grace and how you define grace are entirely different.”
“How would you define grace?”
“Unmerited favor. We do nothing that merits the kindness of God.”
“I believe that.”
“Sir, that is not the official teaching of the Mormon church.”
“Don’t you think I’ve studied my own religion!”
“Sir, which would you say comes first, grace or works? Do works produce grace, or does grace produce works?”
“Well, isn’t that just semantics?”
Is it? Is it just semantics? Stare into your own soul and understanding of the gospel and answer that question. Is the razor-thin wire that we walk which is the truth that saves concerned with the order of grace and works?
My Mormon hotel guest would pile that question upon the tangled trash heap of philosophical folly, doomed to rest next to ponderings upon the chicken and the egg.
Does it matter?
“No sir, it is not semantics. I believe it is the difference between eternal life and eternal death.”
If works come first, I save myself. It may be all perfumed up in a pretty dress, peddled as the idea that though we may not ever work our way back to God, He looks upon our good works and matches them with His grace, saving us.
But such is the gospel of the damned. Semantics? No. A thousand times no. God has closed the door upon my works. He will pay the whole bill or none of it. Saving grace that is given in a response to my good works is not grace, for grace is unmerited.
And that is the gospel. God enlivens dead human souls, who then in their joy turn and worship Him with their hands. Without this, there is no Christianity. Poets have written of it, the wealthy have spent their fortunes to spread it, martyrs have bled for it.
It is not semantics.