Tag Archives: Grace

Heaven has a wall?

There’s a meme floating out there that states “Heaven has a wall and strict immigration policies. Hell has open border policies.”2dxqfh

I don’t address all memes out there (especially political ones!), but because I have seen this one shared numerous times, and because it is potentially damaging to our understanding of the gospel, I thought it was worth a comment.

Some truth?

First of all, like most pithy sayings, there’s an element of truth here. That’s what makes it compelling to Christians. The most obvious Scriptural reference to heaven having a wall is in Revelation 21:9-27. Here, the New Jerusalem is presented as a great city with a wall and twelve gates. The gates are always open, though nothing impure can enter the city, nor those who are shameful or deceitful. The only people who enter are those whose names are written in the book of life.

Perhaps the author of this meme didn’t have John’s vision in mind. Perhaps he was thinking more generally. Heaven really is restricted to those who have been saved by Jesus, a gift we receive by faith in Jesus. There’s an exclusivity to the gospel that makes many of us uncomfortable, but which is undeniably taught in Scripture.

And so, the logic goes, if heaven has a wall and entry criteria, then so should America. That is the logic of the metaphor. It is true that borders, in principal, are okay (think skin, the walls of a house, the membrane of a cell, etc.), and I’ll grant that level of logic to the meme.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with this metaphor.

Problem #1: What else this implies about America.

Metaphors tend to carry a lot of weight, intended or not, and this one does too. The metaphor compares America to heaven and ends up implying quite a bit: In the America is heaven metaphor American citizens are heavenly citizens. Non-citizens are the heathens who have to pass some test. The government is God, which has the right to do “extreme vetting” however it sees fit. Etc. All of these fit into the nationalist idolatry prevalent in our culture today. Perhaps those who share this want to keep the metaphor limited to the wall. That’s fine, but it’s not all that gets communicated.

Problem #2: What else this implies about Heaven.

What’s worse is the way in which this metaphor works backwards. If America is like heaven then heaven (and its immigration policies) is like America. That’s a comparison that strikes at the heart of the gospel. Let’s think about how this works.

Heaven, as understood through strict nationalistic immigration policy, is primarily concerned about security. Those who want to enter must wait outside and show themselves worthy to enter. They must prove they are not dangerous and they must show how they can contribute. Citizens of heaven (Christians), on the other hand, are either in by birthright or because they have already gone through extreme vetting and have shown themselves worthy.

That vision of heaven is about as far from the gospel as you can get.  When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven it is both uncomfortably exclusive (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) and radically inclusive “whoever believes in me will have eternal life”).

The Pharisees and teachers of the law, the ones who imagined themselves citizens by birthright, the ones who were worthy and had something to offer, the ones who passed the “extreme vetting” were offended that Jesus came to invite the prostitutes and sinners into that same kingdom. But they had it backwards: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). He goes on to excoriate the Pharisees: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

According to the gospel, when it comes to entrance into the kingdom of God, we’re all unworthy asylum seekers. We come with nothing to offer. We come without credentials. We come, even, as enemies of God. It is only by God’s radical grace that comes to us and invites us in that we could gain entrance. And then, having been forgiven much, we share that same goodness with the world – a welcoming and hopeful vision of heaven.

This isn’t really a post about immigration. I’ve written a more systematic post about that here. Instead, I’m concerned about two things:

(1) Are we misusing Scripture to make a political point? I think this meme does just that.

(2) Are we allowing an earthly political vision to impact the way we view or express heaven? Again, this post does just that. Even if we manage to understand this meme in a very narrowly defined way, when we share it we are sure to present a picture of heaven that is inconsistent with the gospel of grace, expressed in the mercy of Jesus.

Foundations for a life that pleases God

Yesterday I started a series on the book of Ephesians. I used the opportunity to lay out some of the major themes of the book as foundations for living a life pleasing to God.

The reality and character of God. In our secular age, it has become rather popular to jettison the idea of God all together as a mere illusion or crutch and to find some other foundation of life. Even among people who believe in God, He is far from foundational, instead, He is a peripheral part of life which we bring in or throw out as seems useful to our own goals. But for Paul, the reality and character of God forms the very foundation for every other argument he makes.

Reality: What Paul assumes in Ephesians, the writer of Hebrews makes explicit: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Character: Paul is less interested in defending the reality of God than he is in describing his character. Indeed, the purpose of much of Ephesians is simply to draw his readers to love and worship God. God is the creator of all things (3:89). He is “over all and through all and in all” (4:6). He is the “glorious Father” (1:17). And, He is characterized by great love and as being “rich in mercy” (2:4). In this vision of God, He is the creator and sustainer of all things – and thus serves as a good foundation not only for our personal lives but for the entire cosmos. Further, He is not a distant and removed creator, but one who loves and shows mercy to his creation.

God’s work in Christ. Many monotheistic religions would affirm this vision of God as the foundation for life, but what makes Christianity unique is this second foundational principle: God’s work in Christ. God’s work in Christ naturally flows out of his love and mercy. How does He show us love and mercy? By sending His one and only Son into the world to save the world (John 3:16). And what did Jesus do? He gave us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:7). He “brought us near [to God] by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:19b-20).

The Christian faith rests on the foundation of the historical reality of Jesus, on His historical death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Through this reality we can be forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and made alive.

God’s gifts, given through Christ. Through the work of Christ, and out of the boundless riches of God’s mercy and grace, God gives gifts to those who believe in him. These gifts are expanded throughout the letter but nowhere more than in Ephesians 3:3-10 (explanatory video in the link), but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on just three which are mentioned in 1:1-2: Paul’s apostleship, Grace, and Peace.

Paul’s apostleship: In some circles, it has become popular to accept the teachings of Jesus but reject Paul, but to do so would be a mistake. Indeed, God has given us apostolic teaching as one of the key foundations for the church (2:20). Specifically, God gave Paul special insight (revelation) into the mystery of the gospel; that Gentiles could be saved and incorporated into the people of God in the same way that Jews could, through faith alone, apart from the law. It was in large part due to Paul’s special mission to the Gentiles that the church expanded the way that it did.

Grace: Grace is God’s unmerited favor and this unmerited favor is what leads to our salvation. It equips us to serve the body of Christ, making it mature in the faith. And, will be revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns.

Peace: In our harried 21st century lives we’re particularly interested in how to achieve inner peace, but the peace which Paul refers to in Ephesians is, first, peace with God and second, peace with one another within the body of Christ. But, it makes sense that if we were to achieve peace in these first two senses, an inner peace would likely follow.

Without these gifts – knowledge of the gospel revealed through Paul’s apostleship, grace, and peace – the Christian life would be impossible. We would simply lack the power to accomplish what God has commanded us to do.

Our identity in Christ: Paul spends a large portion of his letter exhorting Christians to obey God. But prior to these commands he identifies his audience as “God’s holy people… faithful in Christ Jesus.” This identity comes first and foremost from what God has done for us. Out of God’s great mercy he sent Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is through this work that God grants us the gifts of grace and peace. And, it is these gifts which make us truly holy in the eyes of God. We’re objectively holy, with a righteousness that comes from God and is received through faith, even before we are subjectively and imperfectly holy. Indeed, our faithfulness flows out of this new identity in Christ, and apart from that identity, living a faithful life would be impossible.

There are many things in life competing for our core identity. But our identity in Christ is the only one which will never, can never, be shaken.

Actions: Only after laying this firm foundation does Paul lay out the moral exhortations later in the letter: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). It may be useful to think of Christianity as an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. This forms the foundation of the iceberg and makes that which is above the water stable.

In Christianity, this foundation is the rich theological principles of the character of God, God’s work in Christ, God’s revelation, grace, and peace poured out on us, and the reality that when received by faith these form in us a new and lasting identity. The “above the surface” part of the Christian faith is what we actually do. These too are essential, but are not foundational. We make a mistake when we flip the proportions of the iceberg, when we make Christianity essentially about what we do, de-emphasizing theology and the incredible work of God. Such a faith is fundamentally unstable. If we get the foundations right, the actions, while still requiring the hard work of obedience, will follow naturally.

Principles of communication applied to #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter

Communication is hard. It’s essential that our words be “full of grace and seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). In my observation, there’s a lot of miscommunication that goes on between the #BlackLivesMatter folks and the #AllLivesMatter folks. Use those slogans if you must, but keep these principles in mind:

Principle #1: What you say (mean) isn’t always what others hear (interpret). What you hear isn’t always what others say.

Principle #2: When we speak we generalize. When we listen we personalize.

Principles applied to #BlackLivesMatter/#AllLivesMatter.


What is meant (usually, in my experience): I am drawing attention to a particular injustice in society as a whole, I’m not saying that other lives don’t matter (general).

How it is heard, processed (often): Other people experience injustice and violence – cops, working poor whites, (maybe even) me. You are discounting their/my experience (personal).


What is meant (usually, in my experience): All lives matter, including Black lives. We shouldn’t have to pick a side (general).

What is heard, processed (often): You are discounting and trivializing my personal experience of injustice, or the experience of Black people in America (personal).

There is, obviously, a difference in emphasis here (“I care about injustice against Black people but I don’t discount injustice against others” vs “I care about injustice towards all, including injustice against Black people”). But, often what I see is a tendency to interpret the other person in the worst possible light.

A request to the who use these slogans:

Please understand how your slogan is, or could be, perceived by others. You are responsible for communicating clearly. If you are challenged, take the time to patiently explain yourself.

Please listen responsibly. Don’t assume the worse possible interpretation. If you think what they are saying is outrageous or insensitive, it might be, but give the benefit of the doubt first.

That last line is true of this blog post too! If you are angry about what I’ve said, or if I have spoken unclearly, please help me to clarify!

Bonhoeffer on Grace and Discipleship

The Cost of Discipleship is perhaps most well known for its distinction between cheap and costly grace. “Cheap grace,” for Bonhoeffer, is accepting the principle of grace as free forgiveness of sins without also following the person of Jesus.

“Cheap grace is a grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Click to Tweet

Costly grace, on the other hand, is centered on the person of Jesus Christ and it calls us to follow him in the way of the cross:

“ Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Bonhoeffer was worried that the Luther Church of his day had taught so thoroughly a doctrine of cheap grace – only concerning itself with hold a particular doctrine of atonement – that all calls to costly grace had been lost. He saw this as a problem not with Luther’s teachings, but with the perversion of them:

“Everywhere Luther’s formula has been repeated, but its truth perverted into self-deception… We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship.”

It is this idea of “true discipleship” and “costly grace” that Luther tries to recover in The Cost of Discipleship. Specifically, he aims to “recover a true understanding of the mutual relationship between grace and discipleship.”

So how can grace and discipleship be reconciled? Bonhoeffer seems to be arguing against a doctrine that pitted the two against each other. Discipleship, following Christ, was seen as legalism, as antithetical to grace. Bonhoeffer argues, on the other hand, that the two can and must be reconciled.

“Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship.”

In fact, the call to discipleship destroys legalism:

“When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. It transcends the difference between law and gospel. Christ calls, and the disciple follows: the grace and the commandment [to follow] are one.”

Later, Bonhoeffer connects all this to Sermon on the Mount. Much like Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God), he takes his cue for the life of discipleship from this famous passage. Disciples are those that attach themselves completely to the person of Christ. The call is costly, but it is also gracious.

“The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the toke is easy and the burden is light.”

I see the same challenges in our culture as Bonhoeffer did in his, though thankfully without the Nazi threat. We live in a country that is ready to accept grace in principle but not in the person of Christ. We are ready to accept the “justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.” We want forgiveness, but aren’t so ready for discipleship. I am learning from Bonhoeffer that these two are not exclusive ideas. Discipleship springs from grace.

Book Recommendations:

The Cost of Discipleship

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God

The new legalism? (Why we use that word too much)

Late last week I re-tweeted an Eric Mason tweet below that said “Stop calling obedience to Jesus legalism!”


I don’t know what the context of Eric’s tweet was. As for me, I was fresh off a reading of Anthony Bradley’s article, “The New Legalism.” In the article, Bradley suggests that the new missional/radical movement is becoming a new form of legalism by making Christians feel bad for not dropping out of their middle class lifestyle and engaging in inner city or third-world missionary work. I think the article makes some good points but I take a few issues with it as well.

First, I think it mischaracterizes much of the missional/radical movement. I can’t really classify myself as a part of either of these movements – I don’t really know what either are, and I’m not a big fan of labels, especially new ones – but most of what Bradley argues against is an abuse of their positions, not their actual positions.

Second, I take issue with the use of his term “legalism.” This isn’t unique to him and, in fact, since reading the article I have found myself and others using this term loosely on a regular basis. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to stop, and I think you should too.

Here’s why.

There are three meanings for legalism in use today, one narrow, one broad, and one wrong.

The more narrow meaning is this: The idea that we are saved, or retain our salvation, by following a set of rules. Since Christianity maintains that salvation is by God’s grace alone this form of legalism stands in opposition to Christianity.

The broad meaning is this: Over-emphasizing a rule OR doctrine, especially in comparison to God’s grace or the free choice of the individual. So, someone might say that a school having a strict dancing policy is “legalistic” because he might believe that the policy over-emphasizes what he might consider to be a made-made rule that unduly restricts the free choice of the students.

The wrong usage is this: I don’t think holiness or obedience is really all that important, so I’ll name any call to obedience ‘legalism’ to sound pious.

I think Bradley’s article falls under the second/broad meaning of the term.

In his article he argues that “missional” thinkers over-emphasize the call to inner-city work and therefore restricts the “choice” of the individual to live in the suburbs by adding undue guilt onto their consciences. In other words, he this ‘new legalism’ over-emphasizes a particular rule (which he might call man-made) and therefore de-emphasizes grace.

I don’t blame Bradley for his use of this term in this way. It’s common.

So, why does it bother me? Good question. Perhaps I am overreacting a bit but I’ll make my case anyway and let you, dear reader, can decide for yourself.

When you use ‘legalism’ broadly you mischaracterize your opponents: Because ‘legalism’ has a narrow and a broad meaning you run the risk of charging your opponent with hold a position which stands in opposition to Christianity when, in fact, you may only wish to say they are too restrictive in their rule enforcement. You characterize them with being Pharisees – no small charge among followers of Jesus.

The two forms of ‘legalism’ have different causes and different cures: Real legalism is a theological error. It makes works a requirement for salvation. You solve it by showing how we are saved by Christ alone. However, when most people use legalism, they are saying that someone is restrictive, or judgmental, or narrow-minded, or overly zealous. All of these may or may not be real issues but they are not the same issue. You might solve these issues by talking about Christian liberty, or an appeal to conscience, or a more balanced perspective, or by pointing to the heart of the matter instead of the outward appearance, etc. In other words, the charge of legalism, in many cases, misdiagnoses the problem.

When you bring the charge of ‘legalism’ you shut yourself, and others, from learning from their perspective: Because legalism is such a bogeyman it’s easy to shut off a conversation by just saying the other side are a bunch of gospel hating legalists when, in fact, there might be much you can learn from their position. For instance, perhaps those missional/radical Christians have something important to teach us about what it means to live out the Great Commission or lose your life for the sake of Christ. Or, perhaps that school with restrictions on dances has something important to teach us about modesty, propriety, and sexual purity. Perhaps what we thought was a restrictive rule designed to simply modify behavior actually teaches us something important about obedience and holiness. We’ll never really know if we can’t get past the ‘legalistic’ label we’ve applied to them. It shuts down the conversation.


I’m not sure if there is one or, if there is, I don’t know what it is. For now, I’m trying to stop use the label of legalism unless I really mean it. I’m hoping this will open me up to more nuanced and serious discussions with those who emphasize some component of holiness and obedience I had previously neglected.

What do you think? Do you agree we use legalism too broadly or am I overreacting?

Poll: Which is a bigger problem in the church today, lack of grace or boldness?

I’m curious, based on your experience, which is a bigger problem in the church today, a lack of grace (Christians being jerks, misrepresenting Christ) or a lack of boldness (Christians being silent, NOT representing Christ)? I know both are problems, I’m just interested in what others think is the BIGGER problem today.