Layers of legalism

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach
Joseph and Tammy Tkach

In the novella, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who proclaimed his disdain for Christmas and all it represents by exclaiming, Bah humbug!

The word humbug is interesting. It’s an archaic word with 18th century origins that refers to deceptive or false talk or behavior. When used of a person, it means that the person is a fraud or a hypocrite. Thus in crying bah humbug, Scrooge was saying that anyone who sees Christmas as a time of joy, peace, hope and love is a fraud. In his warped mind, Christmas is a lie—a clever ruse by which people get out of work and receive undeserved gifts or bonuses. Bah humbug!

Beware the disease of humbug

(source)

In the essay, “The Prevalence of Humbug,” Cornell Professor Max Black notes that “humbug has the peculiar property of being always committed by others, never by oneself.” He then gives the example of a woman who, though healthy and prosperous, complains to Anton Pavlovich that, “Everything is so grey: people, the sea, even the flowers seem to me grey…. and I have no desires… my soul is in pain… it is like a disease.”

In reply, Pavlovich says her unjustified humbug attitude truly “is a disease; in Latin it is called morbus fradulentous.” It seems that the ones who loudly proclaim bah humbug, have succumbed to this “fraudulant disease” themselves.

I suppose the reason the word humbug recently came to mind is that the Advent-Christmas season is just around the corner and that reminds me of the multiple Ebenezer Scrooges I’ve encountered over the years—people who have convinced themselves that everything about Christmas is fraudulent.

I’ve also encountered multiple Scrooges who exclaim bah humbug to the idea that Christianity is about living fully under the grace of God. Sadly, their humbug attitude toward grace is a defining characteristic of many Christian cults. Their viewpoint concerning salvation and the Christian life (sanctification) is known as “works-righteousness,” which they live out by extracting from the Bible various systems of rules and regulations for achieving salvation and spiritual growth. In a word, works-righteousness is legalism, which has two primary layers of deception that we must seek to avoid. Let me explain.

1. The deception that salvation is secured by works

The first layer of legalism is the deception that our works somehow contribute to our salvation. Legalism is grounded in the false premise that Jesus is not sufficient—therefore salvation requires that our works supplement those of Jesus. A legalist might say, “If I do my part, God will do his.” The reason people succumb to this legalistic premise is that it appeals to fallen human nature, which likes to think that we have some sort of capacity to earn, or qualify for, salvation. Fallen nature wants to be able to say, “Look what I’ve contributed!” Life in general provides evidence that supports this false view—as we acquire more information and skill, we get a better job, earn more money and achieve a better status. There is “no free lunch,” and we get ahead due to our own effort. It’s no wonder people project this way of the world onto God and his salvation. But doing so is a tragic mistake that distills down to the false premise that Jesus’ atoning work is somehow deficient or inadequate.

Our fallen human nature pridefully insists that we surely must have something that God needs from us to complete our salvation. But Scripture says just the opposite. In his letter to Christians in Colossae, the apostle Paul proclaimed that “In Christ you have been brought to fullness” (Col. 2:9-10). When Paul pleaded with God to remove the “thorn” in his flesh, God’s replied: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). The author of Hebrews adds that “By one sacrifice [Christ, our high priest] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14). The gospel truth is that when it comes to our salvation, Jesus is all-sufficient. We aren’t given salvation as a reward for our works. It is the work of Jesus, not our own efforts, that makes us holy. Our works in service and obedience to God are a thankful response to all that God, in Christ and by the Spirit, has done on our behalf to qualify us for salvation. We cannot qualify ourselves!

2. The deception that salvation is maintained by works

The second layer of legalism is the deception that our works somehow maintain our salvation. This is as much a humbug as the first layer, yet it is seductively deceptive in that it contains a seed of truth. It begins by rightly acknowledging that we all fall far short of God’s perfection. But then the lie creeps in as we think that this separation can somehow be resolved through our own efforts—through a righteousness grounded in our own works. This legalistic deception thus acknowledges that salvation is a gift, but then it embraces the lie that the gift must be maintained by our works.

If you think about it, it’s not possible that our works would somehow maintain our salvation since we know we cannot and do not behave perfectly once we commit ourselves to following Jesus. This is not to say, of course, that our response to God is to throw proper morality out the window and live recklessly. As Paul says, “God forbid!” (Rom. 6:2, KJV). The apostle Peter tells us that once we have tasted God’s goodness, we will continue to grow in our salvation (1 Pet. 2:1-3). That growth has to do with our relationship with our Triune God—Father, Son and Spirit. This is a gift of grace that flows from his love toward us, and the trust we have in his lordship.

Our transformation into the likeness of Christ is a gift we receive by and through the faithfulness of Jesus who, by the Spirit, lives and works within us (Gal. 2:20, KJV). Our salvation, deepening trust, and living communion with God come to us as God’s freely-given gifts. As we live into that communion, we receive upgrades as we learn to trust and obey God—as our faith continues to grow.

Sadly, in the history of Christianity there have always been some who distort the truth of God’s gospel of grace with add-ons that seem like genuine pathways to growth. In reality, these add-ons are legalisms—means employed to try to obtain and then maintain God’s good graces.

Let there be no confusion, brothers and sisters: God has sent Jesus to save us because, from start to finish, we cannot save ourselves!

Giving thanks that there is no humbug with God,
Joseph Tkach

PS: Because several members of our Weekly Update production team will be out of the office next week, the next issue of Update will be published on November 1. See you then!

Cincinnati blessing

In the video below, GCI Regional Pastor Rick Shallenberger tells the story of how one of our Cincinnati-area congregations was given a church building. Rick notes that an earlier relationship via a shared Vacation Bible School set the stage for the gifting of the building. He also notes that the congregation was in a state of health and readiness to be able to immediately begin using the building to engage the neighborhood via events that connect new people to the life of the church. Though a building of itself does not make for a healthy church, a serviceable, inviting building in the right location can be a valuable tool in the work of living and sharing the gospel.


On YouTube at https://youtu.be/IU7PqAMs5BI.

If your congregation is interested in purchasing or constructing a church building, we highly recommend that you begin by contacting your Regional Pastor and reading the GCI-USA Church Building Manual (click here to read online).

Hands for Christ fifth anniversary

Congratulations to Hands for Christ Community Church, GCI’s congregation in Staten Island, NY. They recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. Here is a report from Pastor Mary Bacheller, who planted the church and continues serving as its lead pastor.

What an exciting day it was—celebrating five years of God’s graciousness in leading our deaf church all these years. We have grown to trust God as he sends the Holy Spirit to each of us.

Pastor Mary addresses the congregation.

We were pleased to have with us as guest speakers GCI President Joseph Tkach and his wife Tammy, Regional Pastor Randy Bloom and his wife Debbie, Pastor Al Barr and his wife Edna, and Pastor John Newsom and his wife Vicki. Each played an important role in the planting and subsequent growth of Hands for Christ. As shown in the video below, the celebration began with a worship service with our deaf choir expressing its dedication in signing the songs “Made to Live for You” and “We Believe.” The service also included Communion.

 
On YouTube at https://youtu.be/TwuPAgmDoro.

As shown in the pictures below, the service ended with Communion and was followed by the 140 participants moving to the celebration hall for more fellowship, food and learning more about Hands for Christ’s future, which will (if all goes as planned, and as finances permit) include translating the Bible into American Sign Language (ASL).

R to L: Randy Bloom, Joseph Tkach and Mary Bacheller serve communion.
Gathered for a meal in the celebration hall.

Rod Matthews

Prayer is requested for Rod Matthews, GCI Mission Developer for Southern Asia and the South Pacific.

Ruth and Rod Matthews

Rod, who is battling prostate cancer, is scheduled for surgery on October 20. It is likely that he will be hospitalized for 3-4 days followed by several weeks of recuperation at home. Rod reports that he is in good health otherwise, and is feeling well. He wrote that, “It’s a real blessing to be part of a worldwide caring family, all in the measureless care of our Heavenly Father.”

Cards may be sent to:

Rod and Ruth Matthews
PO Box 402
Varsity Lakes, QLD 4227
AUSTRALIA

Tom Smith

Tom Smith, pastor of GCI’s congregation in the Pittsburgh, PA, area, was admitted to the hospital recently experiencing shortness of breath. Initial tests indicated he had a mild heart attack. A heart catheterization confirmed the diagnosis and stents were inserted to open two blocked arteries and medications were prescribed to deal with his congestive heart failure.

Pam and Tom Smith

The doctor told Tom’s wife Pam that if Tom had not come in immediately when experiencing shortness of breath, he “probably would have come in on a stretcher.” Thanks to the many who already have been praying for Tom. Prayer is requested for his full recovery.

Card’s may be sent to:

Tom and Pam Smith
346 Steele St
Monroeville, PA 15146-4656

Death of former pastor’s wife

We were saddened to learn of the recent death of Donna Bechthold, wife of GCI elder and former pastor Glenn Bechthold. Here is an announcement from GCI Pastor Mark Stapleton.

Donna and Glenn

Donna died on October 1 at age 67. She had been battling leukemia since 2009. In 2011, she had a bout with bacterial meningitis, resulting in a coma from which she miraculously recovered. She battled the leukemia bravely, and was holding her own when, just after Christmas 2015, an MRI revealed numerous brain tumors. After multiple rounds of radiation, Donna’s tumors where at bay. However, she returned to the hospital recently with complications and it was determined that she had a septic infection that ended up being the cause of her death.

Starting in 1976, Donna and Glenn had served the GCI church in the San Diego North County area. Glenn served as the bivocational pastor of North County Christian Fellowship from 1999-2003, while Donna managed their plumbing business and served alongside Glenn in pastoring the congregation. Donna was a strong, courageous and competent woman, full of love and life. She laughed easily, loved people and really knew how to throw a party. She will be deeply missed.

Donna was preceded in death by her father Don Turk and her mother Rosalie Turk. She is survived by her husband, Glenn, two daughters, Brandy Bechthold and Daiquiri Rankin, and her grandchildren Drake and Bailee.

The family knows that many of you have been praying for Donna’s healing since her condition was announced in January 2016. They are grateful for those prayers, which brought comfort and intervention on many occasions. Prayer is requested for Glenn and the family during this difficult time. The couple would have celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary on December 5. Instead, the family will hold a Celebration of Life on December 3. It will be open to everyone.

Cards may be sent to:

Glenn Bechthold
2420 La Costa Avenue
Carlsbad, CA 92009-7301

Death of elder’s wife

We were shocked and saddened to learn of the recent, tragic death of Carole Grinnell, wife of GCI elder Bob Grinnell who serves as the facilitator of our fellowship group that meets in Good Hope, AL.

Bob and Carole, along with their daughter Debbie, were on a camping trip to attend automobile races at the Talladega Speedway when Carole accidently stepped on a bed of fire ants and died suddenly—apparently from an allergic reaction. Bob and Carole had recently celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary. Carole, who was 77, was in good health overall.

Cards may be sent to:

Bob Grinnell
44 Co Rd 1347
Vinemont, AL 35179

The glory of God’s forgiveness

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach
Joseph and Tammy Tkach

Though God’s amazing forgiveness is one of my favorite topics, its reality is difficult to fully grasp. Its foundation is God’s freely-given, yet costly act of atonement through the Son, in the Spirit, culminating at the cross. It is there that, not only are we acquitted, we are restored—made “at-one” again with our loving triune God.

T. F. Torrance

In Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, T. F. Torrance put it this way: “We must clap our hand upon our mouth again and again for we have no words adequate to match the infinitely holy import of atonement.” T. F. recognized that the mystery of God’s forgiveness is the work of a gracious genius—a work so pure and great we are unable to fully comprehend its glory.

According to the Bible, the glory of God’s forgiveness is seen in its multiple, related benefits. Let’s take a brief look at four of those gifts of grace.

1. With forgiveness comes the remission of sin

“Christ Crucified” by Velázquez
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins helps us not only understand how serious God views sin, but also how we should view sin and guilt. Our sin unleashes a force that would obliterate the Son of God himself and destroy the Trinity if it could. Our sin requires the Son of God himself to overcome the evil that sin allows by giving his own life in exchange for ours. As believers, we don’t see Jesus’ death for our forgiveness as a mere “given,” or “right”—it is what leads us to a humble and deep appreciation for Christ, which leads us to go from simply believing, to gratefully receiving, then ultimately to worshipping him with our whole lives.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have total forgiveness. This means that all injustice is taken over by the impartial and perfect Judge. All that is wrong is identified and overcome—undone and made right for our salvation at God’s own expense. Let’s not just gloss over this stunning reality. God’s forgiveness is not blind—just the opposite. Nothing is overlooked. The evil is condemned and done away with and we are rescued from its deadly consequences and given new life. God knows every detail of sin and how it harms his good creation. He knows how sin harms you, and those you love. Further, he sees beyond the present to how sin impacts and hurts to the third and fourth generation (and beyond!). He knows the power and depth of sin and that’s why he wants us to understand and rejoice in the power and depth of his forgiveness.

Forgiveness allows us to see and know that there is more to living than what we see and experience in our present temporal existence. Because of God’s forgiveness, we can see and look forward to the amazing future God has prepared for us. He has not allowed anything to happen that his atoning work cannot redeem, renew and regenerate. The past has no power to determine the future that God has opened up for us though the door of his beloved Son’s work of atonement.

2. With forgiveness comes reconciliation with God

“God the Father” by Conegliano
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Through the Son of God, our elder brother and high priest, we know God as our Father. Jesus invited us to join him in calling out to God our Father as Abba, an intimate term meaning Papa or Dearest Father. He shares with us the intimacy of his relationship with the Father and ushers us into the closeness the Father desires to have with us through his Son.

To lead us to this intimacy, Jesus sent his Spirit, and it is by the Spirit that we become aware of the Father’s love and we begin to live as the Father’s beloved children. The author of Hebrews emphasizes the superiority of Jesus’ work in this regard:

The ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs [the priests of the old covenant] as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises…. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. (Heb. 8:6, 12)

3. With forgiveness comes the undoing of death

“The Resurrection of Christ” (detail)
by Tintoretto
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

T. F. Torrance’s nephew, Robert Walker, in a GCI You’re Included interview, noted that the proof of our forgiveness is the undoing of sin and death as proven in the resurrection:

The resurrection is an almighty event. It’s not just the raising of a body from death, it’s the beginning of a new creation—the beginning of the renewal of all of space and time… The resurrection is forgiveness. It’s not just the proof of forgiveness, it is forgiveness, because in the Bible, sin and death are linked. So for God to undo sin, means to undo death. That means the resurrection is God’s undoing of sin. It’s raising somebody up who has taken our sin out of the grave, so that it is our resurrection. That’s why Paul says, “If Christ is not raised, we are still in our sins.” …The resurrection is not just somebody being raised from the dead, it’s the beginning of the reconstitution of everything.

4. With forgiveness comes restoration to wholeness

“Christ Pantocrator” by Cefalù
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In our election to salvation, the age-old philosophical dilemma is unwound—God sends the one for the many and the many are incorporated into the one. As Paul wrote to Timothy:

For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle… a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Tim. 2:5-7, NRSV)

Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Israel and for all humanity. He is the true servant of the one God, the royal priest, the One for the many, the One for all! Jesus is the One in whom and through whom God’s purposes of forgiving grace are worked out for all people who have ever lived. God chooses or elects the One not to reject the many, but as The Way to include the many. In the saving economy of God, election does not imply rejection. Rather, the exclusive claim of Jesus is that only in him may all be restored to God. Note these verses from the book of Acts:

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12, NRSV)

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:21, NRSV)

Let’s share the good news

I think you’ll agree with me that all people need to hear the good news about God’s forgiveness. All need to know that they have been reconciled to God and are being drawn to respond to that reconciliation by the proclamation of God’s Word, empowered through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. All need to understand the invitation to receive and then participate in what God has done and is doing so they can live in personal union and communion with God in Christ. All need to hear and know that Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal purpose of God to bestow his pure and infinite love upon us, to undo death, and to gather us back into eternal life in him. All humanity needs to hear the gospel because, as T.F. Torrance notes, it is a mystery “more to be adored than expressed.”

Rejoicing that our sins have been atoned for, and we have been forgiven by the God who loves us perfectly for all time,
Joseph Tkach

Force4Good: running for charity

On September 27, the youth group at New Beginnings Christian Fellowship (GCI’s congregation in Big Sandy, TX), gathered on the track of a local football stadium. The reason was to raise funds for the national St. Jude Children’s Hospital Run/Walk to End Childhood Cancer and the Gladewater, TX, Truman W. Smith Children’s Care Center. New Beginnings challenged their group of 50 young people to be a “Force4Good” by accumulating as many laps on the track as they could in 20 minutes. After a light sack-lunch supper, they took off, carrying with them a 3×5 card, which adult members of New Beginnings then punched each time they completed a lap.

The adults present cheered them on and weren’t disappointed—when the cards were tallied, the youth had run or walked 253 laps, or over 63 miles! The church pledged to donate $1 per lap and several corporate and individual sponsors made donations that brought the total raised to over $1000. The young people were reminded that, as Jesus said in Matthew 25, whatever you do for the least of these, you’ve done for Jesus.

New Beginnings Lead Pastor Jerome Ellard
explains the details of the fundraiser