The Tension Between Grace and Holiness

It’s Monday Morning. And what a blessing! An entire week lies before you, ready to take shape and become part of your history. Let’s begin with prayer…

PRAYER: (From the Lectionary)
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; in Jesus’ name we pray. AMEN.

SCRIPTURES: (From the Lectionary)
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

This week’s scriptures are excellent. Psalm 19 is one of the Bible’s best known songs of praise (The heavens declare the glory of God)—one of our personal favorites. The passage from 1 Corinthians 12 describes the body of Christ. And in Luke 4:14 Jesus begins His public ministry. The Monday Prayer, however, will focus on what is probably the least known of the Lectionary readings, from the book of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NIV):

“Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.’
12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”

“The world thirsts for grace. When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.” —Philip Yancey, American Evangelical Christian author.

“Stand upon the old paths and find from old scriptures they right way, which is the good way.” —John Wycliffe (1320-84), English philosopher, theologian, reformer and Oxford University professor.

PRAYER FOCUS: The Tension Between Grace and Holiness
As the acting governor of Jerusalem and the direct representative of the King of Babylon, Nehemiah has just overseen the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. The first groups of Israelites are beginning to return from exile in Babylon. They gather in the square. Ezra the scribe, who is also called a priest and teacher of the Law, reads the scriptures to them. It is the first time in several generations that the Word of God has been read publicly to the children of Israel. The people were so moved that they fell to the ground and burst into tears. But Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites spoke words of encouragement to the people, directing them not to be sad, but to rejoice and be happy.

Perhaps you’ve felt like one of the people in Nehemiah 8. You’ve been gone from the holy land for a while, in exile. But you’ve returned. You’ve opened up your Bible and let God’s words of love and grace wash over you. In response, your emotions surge. You repent. You weep at your sin, for the things that were lost. You feel clean again—restored and renewed. So you resolve to change your ways. You get serious about being good. Just like the Israelites.

And just like them, you’ll need to be reminded: “Do not grieve…the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Otherwise, somewhere between the easy joy of receiving God’s grace and the hard personal choices that produce holy living you will lose both your joy and the strength that flows from it.

Next time you’re in church, look around. How many faces express joy? We’re not talking about the happy-in-Jesus-my-life -is-perfect-masks they wear at church, or the I’m-under-control air that people exude the rest of the week. How many Christians are actually joyful about their struggle with holy living?

When you decide to turn from worldly ways to godly living don’t expect the world to applaud and encourage you. You’ll be called a hypocrite. There will be new interest in your old deeds. You’ll be accused of being “holier than thou.” Some of those barbs will be slung by fellow Christians, and they’ll hurt. It’s not like your chosen road wasn’t tough enough already. Now you’ll have to contend with temptation, tribulation and ambushes by friendly forces.

And one other thing: No matter how hard you try, you will fail. We all do.

Are you losing your joy yet?

In the space between grace and holiness you are confronted with your true motive: Who are you doing this for?

If you’re doing this to please others, or to prove something to yourself, the reality of your failure will likely cause you gloomy feelings like embarrassment and guilt. These, in turn, could drive you back into exile. Or, if you hang around pretending all is well, maybe you’ll learn how to hide behind the false mask of church-happy you’ve seen through so many times before. Why yes, my life is perfect and my joy is around here someplace…

The alternative is to live for love. If you have been saved by God’s grace through the suffering and sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ, you are the recipient of a Love that surpasses human understanding. This amazing, life-changing love is deeper, higher, wider, than anything. And it expects a reply.

Simply stated, holy living is part of our response to God’s love. Sure, we will still stumble, and occasionally we will fall. But God’s love for us will never fail. And His grace is always sufficient. If we continue to respond to Him in the power of His love, we will be able to pick ourselves up, time after time, and move ahead without negative baggage. There’s joy in that.

It’s Monday morning. This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep. Enjoy it. Enjoy Him. Remember, the joy of the Lord is your strength.

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2 Responses to The Tension Between Grace and Holiness

  1. butchkissick says:

    Thank you for focusing on the Old Testament reading. It is often easier to work from the New Testament, but your insightful comments on Nehemiah are well timed. I appreciate the work you are doing.

  2. “Grace and holiness are best friends meant to walk hand in hand in our lives. Holiness reminds us of our need for grace. We will always fall short of the call to holiness without God’s free gift. Grace calls us to greater holiness and turns our eyes from self-righteousness to Jesus’ self-sacrifice.”
    –Margaret Feinberg

    For a further discussion on the tension between grace and holiness, read the excellent article in the 28 January 2013 edition of Christianity Today, “Do American Christians Need the Message of Grace or a Call to Holiness?”

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