Grief and joy in the Ramos family

Raul with his mother
Raul and Sylvia Ramos

The Ramos family is grieving the death of Maria Rivera, mother of GCI pastor Raul Ramos. She died peacefully in her sleep after battling liver cancer. As noted by Sylvia Ramos (Raul’s wife): “No more suffering, no more pain, no more confusion. Maria is now with her beloved Lord.”

Though there is sadness in the home because of Maria’s death, there is also joy. Sylvia learned recently that she will not need radiation or chemotherapy as a follow-up to her recent surgery for endometrial cancer. The doctor determined that the cancer had not penetrated her uterine wall.

Cards may be sent to:

Raul and Sylvia Ramos
1637 Bisbee Place
Lancaster, CA 93535-4370

Death of Wayne Wyman

We are saddened to learn of the recent death of Wayne Wyman, long-time elder in GCI’s congregation in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada).

According to GCI-Canada national director Gary Moore, Wayne (along with his wife Doris) was a stable and constructive influence in the congregation, including during the years it went through major doctrinal transformation.

Cards may be sent to:

Doris Wyman
2009 89 St NW
Edmonton AB T6K 2A2

Cheap grace?

In his letter this week, Dr. Tkach concludes a three-part series on the topic of God’s grace (for the other two letters in the series, click here and here).

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joe and Tammy TkachPerhaps you’ve heard it said that grace “is not unlimited” or that it “has its requirements.” Some even accuse those who emphasize God’s love and forgiveness as promoting what they disparagingly refer to as “cheap grace.” On one occasion my good friend, GCI Pastor Tim Brassell was accused of preaching “cheap grace.” I love his reply: “No, it’s not cheap grace I’m preaching. It’s far better than that—it’s free!” 

It was theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleshipwho popularized the term cheap grace. He used it in making the point that God’s grace, which is unearned, is experienced as a person embraces and then lives out the new life that is theirs in Christ. Apart from that life of discipleship, what a person experiences will be less than God’s fullness—it will be an experience of “cheap grace.”

The lordship salvation controversy

cost of discipleshipUnfortunately, Bonhoeffer’s teachings concerning grace (including his use of the term cheap grace), along with his teaching concerning salvation and discipleship, have often been misunderstood and misapplied. A case in point is the decades-old debate known as the lordship salvation controversy. A leading voice in that debate, a well-known five-point Calvinist, often asserts that those who claim that a personal profession of faith in Christ is all that is required to be saved are guilty of advocating “cheap grace.” He then argues that to be saved, one must make a profession of faith (accepting Jesus as Savior) and produce a certain level of good works (obey Jesus as Lord).

Though both sides in this debate make valid points, I think both make errors that would be avoided if they would start their discussions not with the human response to God, but with the response of Jesus to God. By starting there they would see Jesus for who he truly is—both Lord and Savior. They would proceed by understanding that, as a gift of grace, we are being led by the Spirit to share more and more in Jesus’ own response to the Father on our behalf.

From this Christ-centered, Trinitarian vantage point they would view good works not as what earns salvation (or as something that is superfluous), but as what we are created to do in our union with Christ (Ephesians 2:10). They would also view salvation as being entirely unearned, resulting not from works (including our personal profession of faith) but from the works and faith of Jesus on our behalf (Ephesians 2:8-9; Galatians 2:20 KJV). They would then conclude that there is nothing they can do to save themselves or to add to (or to maintain) their salvation. As noted by the great preacher Charles Spurgeon, “If we have to put one stitch into the garment of our salvation, we shall ruin the whole thing.”

Grace is Jesus’ work for us in all its aspects

As we’ve noted in this series on grace, we ought to have much more faith in Jesus’ works (his faithfulness) than in our own. It does not devalue the gospel to teach and believe that our salvation is not the result of our works, but is accomplished entirely by God through his grace. As noted by Karl Barth, “No one can be saved in virtue of what he can do. Everyone can be saved in virtue of what God can do.”

The Bible teaches that anyone who believes in Jesus “has eternal life” (John 3:16, 36; 5:24) and “will be saved” (Romans 10:9). And there are verses that admonish us to follow Jesus, living out our new life in him. Any approach to God and his grace that separates Jesus as Savior and Jesus as Lord is wrong-headed. Jesus is one whole, undivided reality who is both Savior and Lord. As Savior, he is Lord. As Lord, he is Savior. Attempting to dissect that reality into two separate categories is not helpful nor is it productive. Doing so creates a two-class Christianity that opens the way for people to exert their judgment upon who is and isn’t a believer in Jesus. It also tends to separate our being from our doing.

A bifurcating of Jesus and his salvation is grounded in a transactional view of salvation that separates justification from sanctification. But salvation, which is entirely of grace in all its parts, is about a relationship with God that leads to life transformation. The grace of God that saves us accomplishes our justification and our sanctification in that Jesus himself, by the Spirit, is both our righteousness and our sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30).

The Giver of salvation is, himself, the Gift. United to Jesus, by the Spirit, we share in all that is his. The New Testament sums it up by calling us a “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). There is nothing cheap about this grace because there is nothing cheap about Jesus and the life we share with him. Indeed, that relationship results in repentance, in leaving the old person behind, and in walking in newness of life. God, in love, desires the perfection of his beloved and has provided for that in Jesus. Anything less would not be loving. As Calvin used to say, “Our whole salvation is complete in Christ.”

A misunderstanding of grace and works

When the focus is on the exact nature of our response and understanding, and on the production of good works, some will mistakenly believe that an ongoing contribution of good works is necessary to maintain our salvation. The fear is that a focus on the grace of God through faith alone will result in the granting of license to sin (a topic I addressed last week). The silliness of that idea is that grace does not ignore the consequences of sin. Also, such wrong-headed thinking separates grace from the very being of Jesus, as if grace is a commodity for transaction that can be doled out in bits and pieces, separated from Christ. In effect, the focus on good works ends up promoting disbelief that Jesus did everything required to save us. It wrongly affirms that Jesus only began the work of our salvation and now it is up to us to behave in a certain way in order to maintain it.

Christians who fully embrace God’s freely-given grace do not believe it gives them license to sin—just the opposite. Paul was accused of preaching too much grace so that “sin may abound.” But that accusation did not cause him to change his message. Instead, he charged his accusers with distorting his message and went on to clarify that grace is not about making exceptions to rules. Rather, faith in God and his grace works itself out in love (Galatians 5:6 ESV). Paul said that the aim of his ministry was to bring about the “obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5 ESV; Romans 16:26 ESV).

Salvation is by grace: Christ’s work from start to finish

We have a certifiable debt of gratitude to God, who sent his Son in the power of the Spirit to save us, not condemn us. We understand that no amount of good works can make us righteous or holy, because if it did, there would be no need of a savior. Whether one’s emphasis is on the obedience of faith or the faith of obedience, we must never undervalue our need for Jesus as our Savior. He has judged and condemned all sin and has forgiven us for eternity—a gift we receive as we believe and trust in him.

It is Jesus’ own faith and works—his faithfulness—that saves us from start to finish. He imputes to us his righteousness (our justification) and by the Holy Spirit he shares with us his holy life (our sanctification). We receive both gifts of grace in the same way: by trusting in Jesus. What Christ has done for us, the Holy Spirit works out within us. We are directed to believe that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). If anyone does not participate in what Jesus is doing in them, then their profession of faith is empty. Instead of receiving God’s grace, they are resisting it by presuming upon it. Certainly we want to avoid that mistake, but let’s also avoid embracing the false idea that our works somehow maintain our salvation.

Eternally grateful for the fullness of God’s grace,
Joseph Tkach

Teaching about the Bible and science

With recent developments in biblical studies and science, pastors and others are often wanting to address the topic of integrating modern science and Scripture. Is it even possible? This is a large topic, but the video below, produced by BioLogos, provides a helpful narrative structure to guide the discussion.


On YouTube at http://youtu.be/ZqgnJ1GR8ms

The presenter on the video is Leonard J. Vander Zee a leader in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) of North America. He is editor in chief for Faith Alive Christian Resources. He previously pastored churches in Indiana, Michigan, Iowa and New York. He is the author of “In Life and In Death: A Pastoral Guide for Funerals” (CRC Publications, 1992) and “More Than Words: Prayer as a Way of Life, a Leader’s Guide” (CRC Publications, 1995). His articles have appeared in The Banner, Reformed Worship, Perspectives and Christianity Today.

There are many articles on the GCI website that address the topic of the Bible and science. See for example the article at http://www.gci.org/science/choose. The subject is also addressed on The Surprising God blog in these posts:

Helping refugees in Canada

Gary Moore
Gary Moore

GCI-Canada National Director Gary Moore reports that GCI congregations in Canada have recently been helping about 60 refugees from a variety of areas settle in Canada. Many, if not most, are attending GCI congregations. Another 60 are waiting for assistance, which we will provide as we are able.

Nova Musafiri, an elder in the GCI congregation in Ottawa/Gatineau, Canada, who is originally from our GCI refugee church in Kenya, has been instrumental in helping to facilitate this ministry to refugees. According to Gary, “It is wonderful to be able to help these people in such a personal and practical way.”

In honor of ministry spouses

God has richly blessed GCI with hundreds of faithful pastoral leaders. For them we give thanks! And we also thank God for their spouses—the wives and husbands who make great sacrifices, bearing significant burdens to support their spouses’ ministries. In honor of our ministry spouses (most of whom are women), wanting us all to be aware of the challenges they face, and wanting to extend encouragement to those spouses themselves, we recommend reading these two articles:

Pastor-wife

Don’t overlook the “engine” of mission

According to Christian author and teacher Mike Breen, “The reason the missional movement may fail is because most people/communities in the Western church are pretty bad at making disciples.”

car-engineAccording to Breen, while it’s laudable to have a passion for mission (and thus to be “missional” in outlook), it’s a mistake to overlook the “engine of mission,” which is discipleship—making disciples in accordance with Jesus’ command (Matthew 28:18-20) and the example set by Jesus’ apostles and their companions as they followed the Holy Spirit throughout the Roman Empire, multiplying disciples of Jesus as they went.

  • To read more from Breen on this important topic, click here.
  • For resources that help churches participate with Jesus in his disciplemaking ministry, click here.

God’s grace: Too good to be true?

In his letter this week, Dr. Tkach continues a three-part series on the topic of God’s grace (for the other two letters in the series, click here and here). 

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joe and Tammy TkachIf it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So goes the old adage. But when the topic is God’s grace, it does not apply. Nevertheless, some people insist that grace truly is too good to be true, and seek to counterbalance it with law to avoid what they see as license to sin. Their sincere, though wrong-headed efforts are a form of legalism that robs people of the transforming power of grace, which flows from the love of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).

The good news of the grace of God in Christ

Jesus (who is the grace of God) came declaring the gospel (Luke 20:1 ESV), the message of God’s grace toward sinners (which, last time I checked, includes everyone). But the religious leaders of his day didn’t like that message because it seemed to place all people (including those they saw as less righteous than themselves) on the same, level playing field. For them, Jesus’ message of grace (the good news), was decidedly bad news. On one occasion, Jesus gave this reply to their protests:

The Great Physician at Work (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
The Great Physician at Work
(public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:12-13 ESV)

Though we embrace the gospel—the message of God’s grace in Christ—it was repugnant to the self-righteous, religious types of Jesus’ day. That same message still rankles those who believe they must try harder and behave better in order to earn God’s favor. “How,” they wonder, “can we possibly motivate people to work hard, live right, and look to a spiritual leader for direction, if we tell them they are already under grace?” They can’t imagine any other way to motivate people than by emphasizing a legal (contractually-based) relationship with God.

Please understand, it’s good to work hard in God’s service. Jesus certainly did—his work is the ultimate achievement. But remember that Jesus, who was perfect, came to reveal the Father to us. And in that revelation there is pure good news that tells us that God’s economy is better than ours—he is the inexhaustible source of grace—love, goodness and forgiveness. We don’t pay taxes (things to earn God’s grace) for God’s government to work—he’s in the business of graciously helping humanity out of the pit it has fallen into.

Perhaps you remember the story about the traveler who fell into a pit and was struggling to get out. Several people came along and saw his struggle. The sensitive person said, “I feel for you down there.” The reflective person said, “It’s logical that someone would fall into the pit.” The interior designer said, “I can give you some ideas on how to decorate your pit.” The judgmental person said, “Only bad people fall into pits.” The curious person said, “Tell me how you fell into the pit.” The legalist said, “I believe you deserve your pit.” The tax agent said, “Are you paying taxes on that pit?” The self-pitying person said, “You should have seen my pit.” The Zen Buddhist said, “Just relax and don’t think about the pit.” The optimist said, “Cheer up! Things could be worse.” The pessimist said, “Be prepared! Things will get worse.” Jesus, seeing the man (humanity) in the pit, jumped in and lifted him out. Now that’s grace!

Some people don’t like the logic of God’s grace. Believing that their hard work helped get them out of the pit, they see it as unfair that others get out without working equally hard. But the nature of God’s grace is that God is equally generous to everyone. Though some may need forgiveness from bigger debts than others, the same arrangement extends to everyone no matter their circumstances. God doesn’t just talk love and compassion; he demonstrated it by sending Jesus into the pit with us in order to lift us all out.

Those who embrace legalism tend to misread God’s grace as promoting a libertine, spontaneous, and unstructured lifestyle (the antinomianism I wrote about last week). But that is not the case, as Paul noted in his letter to Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. (Titus 2:11-12 ESV)

Let me be clear about this: in saving people, God does not leave them in the pit. He does not abandon them to a life of immaturity, sin and shame. God’s grace does not tell us that having forgiven us for falling in, it’s OK for us to remain in the pit. Jesus saves us so that we, by the Spirit, will rise from the pit to the new life of sharing in Jesus’ righteousness, peace and joy (Romans 14:17).

The parable of the workers in the vineyard

Jesus taught about God’s unconditional grace in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Regardless of how long they labored, all the workers were given a full day’s wage. Naturally (humanly) those who worked the longest were upset, believing those who worked less hours received more than they deserved. I suppose those who worked less also believed they didn’t deserve what they received (I relate to that viewpoint!). Indeed, grace by its very nature does not seem fair—but since the judgment of God (represented by the landowner in the parable) is in our favor, I simply praise God for his grace! I have not fooled myself into believing that if I worked hard all day in the vineyard I would somehow earn God’s grace. Grace can only be gratefully, humbly received as the free gift that it is.

I love how Jesus contrasts the groups of workers in his parable. Perhaps some of us would identify with those who, having worked long and hard, think they deserve more than they received. But most of us, I’m sure, would identify with those who were given far more than they earned. It’s only with a perspective of gratitude that we are able to appreciate God’s grace, understanding just how desperately we need it. Jesus’ parable teaches us that God gives salvation to those who have not earned it (indeed, it cannot be earned). It also points out that religious legalists complain that grace is unfair (too good to be true)—how can God, they reason, reward those who have not worked as hard as they have?

Motivated by shame or gratitude?

Jesus’ teaching undermines shame, which is the primary tool legalists use to pressure people into conforming to God’s will (or, more often, to their will!). Shame is the opposite of the motive that flows from grace, which is gratitude for God’s love. While shame focuses on the self with its sin, gratitude (which is the essence of worship) focuses on God and his goodness. Speaking from my own experience, being motivated by shame (and the fear that goes with it) is a poor substitute for being motivated by gratitude for God’s love, goodness and grace.

Unlike the legalistic obedience motivated by shame, obedience motivated by gratitude is fundamentally relational (heart-to-heart)—what Paul refers to as “the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 16:26). That’s the only kind of obedience Paul endorsed, for it’s the only kind that truly glorifies God. Relational, gospel-shaped obedience is our grateful response to the grace of God. It was gratitude that motivated Paul in his ministry, and that motivates us today to participate in what Jesus is doing in the Spirit, through the church. By God’s grace, that sort of ministry leads to life transformation.

In Christ, by the Spirit, we are and always will be the beloved children of our Father in heaven. All God asks is that we grow in his grace and in doing so get to know him better (2 Peter 3:18). That growth in grace and knowledge will continue now, then throughout eternity in a new heaven and new earth.

To God be the glory!

Rejoicing in the truth of God’s grace,
Joseph Tkach

Seminar in Colombia

On February 6 to 9, GCI’s Baranquilla, Colombia church hosted four GCI congregations at their annual seminar/conference. Held in South Rodadero Santa Marta, the theme was Divine Revelation. The guest speaker was Hector Barrero, GCI missions director for Latin America. The seminar was attended by 68 adults and 20 children. In addition to the teaching sessions, the group enjoyed a family night and dance.

Colombia