Being Christian In The Era Of “Gay Marriage”

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This post is not a rant about how the country is going to hell in a handbasket. It’s important for the church be aware of the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s recent invention of a constitutional right to gay marriage. These changes will affect how Christians live and engage our society and culture.

The Lord rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees because they could forecast the weather but not discern the signs of the times. I think it behooves us as Jesus’ disciples to be spiritually vigilant.  I hope you find this informative and helpful as you observe the trends in our culture.

Firstly, Christians should understand that the fight over “gay marriage” is over, at least legally. It’s not likely the Court will overturn this decision in the foreseeable future. As far as I can tell there is no desire even among marriage advocates to launch a campaign of resistance similar to abortion. That doesn’t mean, though, that everything is settled.

Christians must prepare to face a society that will become increasingly hostile towards the gospel and the church. We will continue to see efforts to push a biblical worldview and its adherents out of the public square. There may even come a day where churches are directly threatened if they don’t conform to the prevailing view on marriage. This may take the form of a regulation that requires clergy to officiate “gay weddings” or lose their tax-exempt status. The church’s faith and resolve will be tested.

I’ve seen many Christians I know on social media who have rainbows as their profile photo or twitter avatar. At first I was irritated but then I remembered Barna’s research showed that only 19% of born-again believers have a biblical worldview. Maybe this is just a confirmation of that finding. Christians should also be aware that our new moral categories of nice and mean have replaced good and evil. What’s worse than appearing to be offensive? We will be pressured to abandon biblical teachings so that cast a negative light on our family, friends, and colleagues.

As important as the spiritual challenges are I think Christians should also appreciate the constitutional, and legal, ramifications. A decision on marriage is controversial and will grab headlines, I get that. But what’s also disturbing is the Court’s abuse of its own power, which has been a problem for decades. The Supreme Court has long since abandoned the notion that the Constitution’s words mean what say in favor of interpreting the document in light of their own personal beliefs. Well, that puts all of our rights in jeopardy. As Justice Scalia wrote:

Those civil consequences—and the public approval that conferring the name of marriage evidences—can perhaps have adverse social effects, but no more adverse than the effects of many other controversial laws. So it is not of special importance to me what the law says about mar­riage. It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact—and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Consti­tution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extrav­agant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most im­portant liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.  

This overreach for power on this issue can be repeated on other issues. Being aware of that is the difference between a mature Christian and one who simply gets agitated over “culture wars” issues. It’s about understanding that the courts are one of many fronts in this spiritual war we fight. We contend with spiritual powers and forces as we seek to transform our society with power of the gospel.

Where do we go from here? In one scenario I see the launch of a new culture war that will last for decades. Another possibility is that this all blows over as we discover that there’s no groundswell of gay couples signing up to get married. We will have learned that the notion of gay families as an alternative lifestyle was just good storytelling for a campaign. It’ll probably some combination of the two.

We must ever be vigilant, prayerful, and hopeful. This isn’t the first time in church history that things have gotten worse and we know that our Lord will be victorious in the end.

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The future is here and it is pre-modern

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We often hear conservatives (both the political and religious kinds) lament the decline of civilization caused by the abandonment of Judeo-Christian “values.” Every year we witness battles in the culture war over Christmas songs in malls, monuments to the 10 commandments, or students praying at football games. These controversies seem to indicate a growing hostility towards Christianity, if not religion in general. I’d suggest, though, that we have moved well beyond the post-Christian and into the post-secular.

New Age may have ended as a phenomenon of the 1960s and 70s but it ushered in an alternative spirituality that has continued to gain momentum. Yoga, mantras, meditation, and various pantheistic beliefs and practices have become mainstream ideas, accepted without question. The increasing number of Americans who identify as spiritual but not religious is a testament to its success. People have rejected Christianity (the goal of New Age) while avoiding the skepticism of a secular worldview that is hostile to any belief in the supernatural.

Next came the Age of Interfaith Religion with its central belief that there is one truth, which speaks in many tongues. Oprah is probably the most well-known advocate of this view and you can watch an interesting video of her on YouTube arguing with an audience member about whether there is only one way to heaven. This worldview compels us reinterpret our beliefs in light of other religions. No less than the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church has said that we must no longer consider sin an operative notion in the modern life. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni says that Christians need to get over their antiquated hang-ups about homosexuality:

The drama in Indiana last week and the larger debate over so-called religious freedom laws in other states portray homosexuality and devout Christianity as forces in fierce collision. They’re not — at least not in several prominent denominations, which have come to a new understanding of what the Bible does and doesn’t decree, of what people can and cannot divine in regard to God’s will.

See the problem emerging for Christians? We face increasing pressure to change our beliefs to accommodate the prevailing moral beliefs of the culture. For them, it’s not enough to win the debate. They must bring everyone into submission. As the Apostle Paul wrote:

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened…

Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

Romans 1:21,25

Add to this mix a growing unfamiliarity with the Bible and Christianity and my belief is that we are heading into a time not that different from ancient Rome or other pre-Christian societies. I think that the early church will serve as a model of how to engage a culture that views Christianity with belligerent hostility and fear.

It’s a future that inspires concern but one that should drive us to look to the cross as the symbol of the ultimate victory we have in Jesus.

 

Resurrecting Paul’s Gospel In Our Day

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I was recently invited to a Christmas “service” at a local megachurch. The performance was at a professional caliber, except with cheap ticket prices. The musical performances, dances, light show, and transitions are smooth and polished. It was choreographed to perfection.

And they also talked about Jesus.

I put service in quotes because I think it was a service in all but name. I didn’t leave thinking that I had worshipped God. I was entertained and hyped up but I wasn’t invited to the throne of grace.

The sermon I heard told me that I am “inadequate” for a “transformed” life without Jesus. One of the pastors did mention a survey of Americans’ inflated perceptions of self-worth, showing us that we are narcissists. But that’s about as bad as the description of our condition got.

Consequently, the gospel I heard was a message that God can give me a purpose in life that will fulfill me. If I put my faith in Him then there will be so many more things that I can do. Yessss!

I’m sure that I was especially sensitive because I had been listening to R. C. Sproul sermons all year. I felt like an Amish person sitting through mass. With bad news that good who needs the gospel? I realized that we need a bestseller book that redeems the doctrine of sin. As I thought about it more I realized that we need to resurrect Paul.

Paul gives us a comprehensive and concise understanding of the gospel, especially in his letter to the Romans. He gives us the bad news of our condemnation and he also gives us the good news of His salvation, justification, and sanctification. If twitter was a microcosm of the U.S. you’d think that half the church has never read Romans 1. God is more of a therapist rather than a judge.

The most popular gospel today is a message of reconciliation for a broken world. We’re supposed to speak to gays, drug addicts, and skeptics and stress God’s love for them. The idea is that they will cling to the cross because they are so desperate for healing, peace, meaning, etc. Like the sermon I heard, it was about what you stand to gain.

But how can the unbeliever be prepared to respond to the gospel if he does not become aware of his guilt? We do live in a broken world and part of what makes people broken is that they find the gospel offensive. That includes people who know that they’re hurting, not just those who are in no need of a religious crutch.

Moreover, how can the church speak prophetically if it decides to tickle the ear rather than prick the heart? The prologue to John’s gospel tells us that the world is condemned because it has rejected the light. The church’s most important responsibility is to bear witness to that light and remind people that God will hold them accountable.

We need this gospel: a balanced message that carries the bad news and the good.

How Much Does Heaven Cost?

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I often heard people say that you can’t buy your salvation and while that is true it is also somewhat inaccurate. Jesus put a price on the kingdom of heaven when He gave us two parables to describe what it is like.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:

Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Matthew 13:44-46

There’s a legitimate point that my parents and other elders had and I get it. But my economic training tells me that we have to qualify that statement. While you can’t buy heaven you can put a price on it. I know. I need to explain.

There are two economic principles that we need to consider. First, the Subjective Theory of Value says that something is only worth what a customer is willing to pay for it. It has no objective price that applies to everyone.

Opportunity-Cost

The next economic principle is opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of a resource is the next-most-valued use of that resource. For example, you are spending your valuable time reading this blog when you could be doing something else. Whatever you could be doing is your opportunity cost. Since you’re still reading this that tells me that your alternative options are not more valuable to you, at least not at the moment.

We now see some things in Jesus’ parables that weren’t apparent at first glance. When the man found the treasure he sold everything he owned to buy the field. He was also willing to give up any alternative use of his time and the field to acquire that treasure.

The same is true for the merchant who found valuable pearls. He was willing to part with everything he owned to get that pearl.

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How many stories can you think of about people who take drastic measures to pursue a dream? There’s Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, etc. They all were on the verge of financial ruin, some even bankrupt, at one point but they took big risks to succeed.

There’s no doubt about their commitment. If we can risk it all for something as fleeting as business then we can see the value in the everlasting kingdom of heaven. Jesus is clear: in exchange for the kingdom He wants all that you have.

Jesus said that those who look back when they put their hand to the plow are not fit for His kingdom (Lk 9:62). For those people the opportunity cost is greater than following our Lord so they prefer the alternative. He wants followers who prefer the kingdom more than anything.

If someone looked at your bank account would they see that your priority is the kingdom? How about if they looked at your schedule? What’s the kingdom worth to you and is it obvious to anyone?

Jesus wants disciples who’ve decided to follow Him, no turning back. The cross is always in front and the world is always behind them. Even though none go with them they still will follow. No turning back, no turning back.

America’s Liberty Is Spiritual

It has been some time since my last post. A heavier load of responsibilities has kept me from devoting time to thoughtful reflections.

I was fortunate to come across a very interesting quote in a daily newsletter I receive by email. It’s from remarks that President Calvin Coolidge gave at an Independence Day celebration back in 1926. I think it’s relevant to all believers today and should shape how we think about and pray for our country.

It’s important to remember (for those of you who are Americans) that we have a heritage passed down to us of a political liberty that rests on a solid spiritual foundation.  Enjoy the blessings of freedom in this land today and throughout the weekend.

Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.

No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them.

The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.

– Remarks at the Liberty Bell, July 5, 1926

What Being A Christian Really Means

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When you think of legalism you think of right-wing fundamentals imposing a demanding set of rules to follow. Today we have to deal with a different kind of legalism, one that has the face of “love” but still devoid of Christ.

I normally don’t pay much attention to articles like this one by Cherise Luter but a few things jumped out at me.

It’s frustrating to hear when someone rejects the gospel because no one could answer their questions. It’s even more annoying when they think they’re too smart for God or the church.

Then I read this:

At 25, I was still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (one of the levees broke a block from my apartment) and adapting to my new home in Houston. I was angry and in a lot of pain. I did everything right. I followed all the rules, I’d think bitterly.

My whole life, I had hung around the right people, stayed away from the wrong people, went to church every weekend, and even sang in the choir. I thought my religion would be my saving grace, but instead, I suddenly found that I had no real relationship with the God I’d claimed to serve. I had to make a change. I had to get real with God.

So I threw all of my questions at God. And God had a comeback for each of them: Just love.

This part of the article got my attention because she raised the same questions as Job, though I’m not sure she realized it.

Why do bad things happen to “good” people?

Job’s “friends” came to him and said that he must have done something wrong to cause his children to die. Job defended his integrity, though, almost to the point of prideful arrogance. How could this be his fault when he was above reproach?

After they went around in a few circles for a few dozen chapters God enters the dialogue and asks Job 66 questions, back to back.

When Job poses his questions to God, similar to Cherise’s, God doesn’t answer him with,”simply love.”

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

Job 38:2,3

God is certainly righteous but He is not stumped by Job’s questions. He has to remind Job that there’s lots that he doesn’t understand but takes on faith. Job can’t possibly comprehend the big picture.

The one thing he can be certain of is that God is sovereign and in control. That’s not a faith based on knowing nothing. It’s about knowing the most important thing. We read in Proverbs that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

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Cherise sadly ends the article by arriving at a Christ-less Christianity, one in which the gospel is missing. Where is Jesus? What mention is there of His sacrifice to atone for our sins? How about the imputation of His righteousness to us?

It also bugs me that Cherise is certain she can love people the way God desires. The kind of love that God wants us to show each other is challenging and unappealing to our nature. It’s something that we can only do with the help of the Holy Spirit.

I fear that Cherise has substituted one form of legalism with another. All she has done is to lower the bar so that she knows she will come out ahead. That’s just a rigged horse race. My hope and prayer is that she encounters the only gospel there is and puts her trust in Jesus as her savior and redeemer.

It is only by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus that we can approach the heavenly throne. As the hymn says,”Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”

Your Job Is Not Your Calling

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He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light.

Lamentations 3:2

I’ve learned a lot about the meaning of God’s calling in my life last year. That time was the most difficult in my short life. i spent most of 2013 looking for a job and a sense of direction.

Being unemployed with no prospects is a horrible feeling. Every day a door was slammed shut in my face and the failure became unbearable. The only way to avoid it was to not try at all, which didn’t help much.

Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day.

Lamentations 3:3

Thinking about the future filled me with despair. My life seemed to unravel the more nothing happened. I believe God was crushing every aspiration. It was as if every desire was on a board and God was erasing them one at a time right in front of me.

In our occupation-centric society we define ourselves by our jobs. It’s usually the first or second question we ask someone we’re getting to know. I felt the pressure to graduate college and find a lucrative job from myself and others.

I asked myself: what meaning is there in life if I could achieve nothing I desired? I began to realize that the only way life can be meaningful is if I am walking in the will of God.

Even though my life was a complete failure God would redeem it. Success is now defined by what He accomplishes in and through me. Only in this way will I understand that He must get the glory.

Success is now defined by what He accomplishes in and through me.

At that point I decided that God had to be in complete control of my life. If I needed it then He would have to provide it. If I don’t get it then it’s because He doesn’t want me to have it. God is good.

I had a new perspective on life but everything didn’t change right away. God kept me waiting and kept pushing me farther out on that limb. Months passed but He provided a job but the transformation already happened.

I learned that God did not call me to be successful. He didn’t even call me to a particular job. My calling is to follow Jesus, to believe on the one whom the Father sent. I didn’t need to find my calling. I needed to do it.

Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began

2 Timothy 1:9

Did it matter that Jesus was a carpenter or that Paul was a tent-maker, as opposed to fishing or herding sheep or building boats? While we are called to work hard and be productive the Lord’s main concern is not my job.

Paul made tents to support himself even though his calling was to preach the gospel. His job was incidental to his calling, or his ministry, not central. I had that backwards for a long time.

But then how do I decide whom to marry, which job to take, where to worship, or in which city to live? I’d say that it’s not up to us to fulfill God’s plans. If it were we would be in big trouble.

If I’m trying to find out God’s purpose for me then I’m trying to take back control. Books that teach me how to know God’s calling for me are talismans I use to get what I want. Doesn’t that sound like paganism?

However, if He is going to accomplish anything in my life then it’s up to Him to make it happen. I am totally dependent on Him and incapable of accomplishing anything apart from Him.

This is a huge weight off of my shoulders because I don’t have to worry about anything. I can trust in the power of God. It isn’t up to me to make my life meaningful or happy or successful. The Lord will ensure that. I just have to wait on Him.

“Customer Announcement: We Have A Lost Child In The Culture”

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Are young people fleeing from the church?

I would guess, based on my observations, that 18-30 year olds are the smallest age group at my church. When I hear that anywhere between 45% and 75% of young people who grew up in the church leave by the end of their first year in college it only supports my concern that there’s an exodus of young people.

I would guess, based on my observations, that 18-30 year olds are the smallest age group at my church.

Having come across a few articles now that push back against this narrative I’m more skeptical and curious. And this is to my shame because I studied economics in college and I, of all people, should know that data doesn’t automatically give you the big picture. In fact, many researchers have looked at the data and have come to a different conclusion.

Bradley Wright pulls the data from the General Social Survey on those who identify as Evangelicals by age. The chart he produces shows that the percentage of people who are Evangelicals rises during the 1970s and declines in the 1990s, most sharply for the 18-29 age group. Today we are back to the same levels as the early 70s.

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Bradley also looks at how many Americans are Evangelicals or “Born-again” Christians. (As a pedantic side note I’d say that “born-again” and Christian are synonymous. If you’re not born again you’re not a Christian, but I digress). It hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years. There is a decline in religious affiliation (and a rise in the un-affiliated, or “nones”) but that is mostly affecting nominal mainline Christians and Evangelicals.

Ed Stetzer has also analyzed the data and does not believe it supports a pessimistic view. In commenting on the Pew Forum’s 2012 study which showed a rise in the number of people who have no religious affiliation (the “nones”), he said this:

The reality is that evangelicals have been relatively steady as a percent of the population over the last few years, however there is still great cause for concern here– and for action.

Conservative churches and institutions are holding up better but they still face challenges as more Americans move away from a biblical worldview, including church-going, Bible-reading Christians. There has been a growing movement of “New Calvinists” which has produced organizations like The Gospel Coalition and Together 4 The Gospel. Daniel Darling mentions that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary enrolls more students into their Masters of Divinity program than any other similar school.

The church has always thrived in hostile environments and will continue to do so. Jesus did say that He will build His church. I think we can take this as an opportunity to preach the gospel and show the stark contrasts between the cultural and biblical perspectives. If only a few more believers behaved as if they were confident that they are already victorious then we’d see some amazing changes take place.

Lessons From Downton Abbey On Urban Ministry

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Many seminaries now offer an urban ministry studies program, which tells you that it has become an official fad.

Many people have moved from the suburbs to the inner cities, reversing the trend of the suburban flight. Cheaper homes, shorter commutes, and a love for all things hipster contribute to the migration and churches have not escaped the urban fever.

Many Christians are studying for urban ministry or joining churches and/or ministries that serve the inner city. It hasn’t quite become the cottage industry that youth ministry has attained but that may be just a matter of time. This is where the action is, where “real” ministry is taking place.

What drives the passion for urban ministry? Is it a desire to help the poor or is it something else?

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In my own hometown I’ve seen the gentrification of poor neighborhoods with the intent of development. Large swaths of people come in along with businesses that cater to that audience but they’re like foreigners. Some people may object to that but I’m not here to criticize the trend. It does make me wonder if Christians are going to an “urban” mission field or if they’re staying in the same cultural environment.

One problem I do have is that urban ministry reminds me of missions trips to Third World countries. I’ve seen too many people get excited adventures around the world but neglect the people in their own backyard. You don’t have to leave town to find opportunities to help people. I fear that the same desire to feel good about yourself is stronger than the desire to serve.

We should end urban ministry and continue ministering in the city. We should stop trying to end poverty and, instead, help poor people. The church can do much good if we deal with real people rather than artificial categories.

In a scene from Downton Abbey the chauffeur, Tom, is talking with a woman who shames him for being a part of an aristocratic family. She says that she doesn’t care much for “their type,” to which Tom responds, “I don’t believe in types. I believe in people.” Would that we believe likewise.

At Least I Didn’t Kill Nobody

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Grading on a curve always seemed like legalized cheating when I was a child. In school we were held to an absolute standard and you sank or swam with your grade. Every now and then we’d hear about this strange practice of curving your grade but it seemed like a strange custom from a primitive culture in some remote part of the world. Soon enough the practice would become as common as standing in line to buy coffee.

If curving the grade was a frequent occurrence in the past it has become an essential feature of the academic life. It’s no longer a matter of if the professor will curve but how. Often students will raise this question on the first day to find out the professor’s particular style of curving. It isn’t a corrective measure used sparingly but a routine part of massaging the numbers to make them look better.

You wonder why they haven’t already ditched grades and moved to a percentile scale where you’re just graded against other students in the class. That’s what curving really is. You’re being compared to everyone else rather than against a uniform standard. Most people seem to think this way when they judge themselves in spiritual terms.

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.

James 2: 10-11

The gospel offends people so much because it directly challenges the universal belief that we are just fine the way we are, no need for improvement. If you measure up to your own standards then you’re simply lying to yourself and your standards are worthless. You are “curving” the moral grade far enough so that you can pass the test.

When you have an encounter with the living God in all His holiness all the excuses fall apart and you can’t help but realize that you are tainted and corrupt. Isaiah said as much when he saw the Lord sitting on His throne (Isaiah 6). Peter knew it when Jesus told him to cast the net on the other side of the boat (Luke 5). You cannot have such an experience and continue to believe the lie that you are righteous.

When you face God on His judgment seat you will either appeal to your righteousness or the righteousness of Christ. Only the latter will suffice to avert the wrath of God. No one will be able to claim ignorance because no one will have an excuse. And I can certainly guarantee you that no one will be asking God how He will curve the grade.