by Barry Newton
As pastures go, the one hundred or so sheep who grazed peacefully on the lush green slopes above the loch had thrived under Radock’s leadership until that eventful autumn. Since it was not uncommon for a few sheep to occasionally wander off to discover whatever might lie beyond the horizon or to seemingly suddenly appear from nowhere, old ram Radock had not thought too much about the late summer stragglers merging into his flock.
One fateful chilly morning changed everything. From within the flock an argument erupted shortly after sunrise. Some of the new young sheep were claiming grace means that there would be no condemnation for any sheep belonging to the One Flock. They explained this meant that none of the Great Shepherd’s sheep would be condemned for how they might choose to follow their Shepherd. A message of freedom resonated deep within many sheep hearts. Invisible fences and what had been assumed to be the invisible proddings from the Shepherd’s will suddenly melted away as having been ignorance run amuck. Empowered to seek what they understood to be deeper and more meaningful expressions according to their own needs and creative spirit, these sheep rejoiced at the wonderful message of grace.
Meanwhile some of the other new young sheep were just as joyful and confident about grace, but possessed a completely different message. Bleating with all their might, they were proclaiming that grace involved the undeserved gift of being a part of the One Flock. They insisted that where the Great Shepherd had revealed specifics regarding his will, grace had not liberated the sheep to shape the Shepherd’s will into expressions of their own choosing.
The flock was torn right down the middle. Confusion reigned. Some were reasoning that the old way must be right. Others countered what they perceived to be a stuck-in-the-mud attitude with, “but if there is no condemnation for those in the One Flock, how can you argue that the Shepherd does not want us to use meaningful expressions which will be more compatible to more sheep?”
What about us humans? Are we faring any better than these divided and entrenched sheep. I propose three lines of questioning can be helpful to unlock the subject of grace.
1) While Romans 8:1 accurately proclaims that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, does the surrounding context suggest this has reference to the latitude Christians possess on how they can express themselves to God or is this a statement equivalent to saying their guilt has been absolved?
2) When Titus 2:11-13 teaches us about the nature of grace and what the Christian should learn from grace, does grace transform what had been previously unacceptable to God into now becoming acceptable?
3) Although salvation is not based upon our performance, how does the cross impact those who are following Jesus? To put this in different words, while grace does increase where there is more sin, how does being crucified with Christ in order to live for God and for righteousness relate to how Christians should seek to follow their Lord?
Whereas the expression, “If it looks like a sheep and smells like a sheep then it must be a sheep” is helpful around the farm, Jesus would suggest that such a barnyard analogy is lame when discussing spiritual ideas. To paraphrase Jesus in the form of a question, would a wolf in sheep’s clothing look like a sheep and smell like a sheep? Yep. Should we assume that every wolf in sheep’s clothing knows it is a wolf?
One reason why the common sense guide of “looking and smelling like a sheep” breaks down is that, although the fundamental essence of a sheep might not change, words can be morphed into entirely new critters. It might be the same word, but convey a completely different message. Accordingly, it would seem that Jesus would encourage us to possess a greater sophistication than to naively embrace a message as being scriptural simply because it is riddled with biblical language. Words like grace can become watersheds for opposing sides of significant theological divides.
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