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Checkpoint Summer 2021: Too good to be true?

CMS missionaries Chris and Grace Adams serve in Timor-Leste, a country where following rules is deeply ingrained and the reality of grace is almost too shocking to comprehend. Chris shares how is helping people understand grace. 

Religious context 

“People of Timor Leste I see that in every way you are very religious.” I can imagine the Apostle Paul saying this if he walked around in 21st century Timor Leste, just as he spoke about Athens in Acts 17. As you walk or drive around Timor Leste you will see many objects of worship. Some are obvious like statues of Mary or saints, shrines to ancestors while others may be less obvious such as sacred trees, mountains, animals or places. These objects of worship fall into two groups, reflecting folk Catholicism and tribal animism. These two sets of beliefs are syncretised, or coexistent, layered on top of each other and subtly pervade the whole of society. Both sets of beliefs are founded on a deep dependence on works and most people in the Christian or Protestant church have come from this background either personally or through their family at some stage within a couple of generations. 

Given this context, the idea that we are saved by works is common, and even the default belief within the Christian church. In practice, many churches teach that obedience to rules is the mark of a faithful Christian, and even acceptance by God, usually loosely tied to the Bible but more strongly to traditions of the church. 

Forgiveness is a counter-cultural sign of grace in action. A willingness to forgive others and recognise one’s own sin goes against the norm of retribution for wrong and refusal to admit fault. Someone who understands salvation by grace understands that at the most fundamental level forgiveness of sins is an act of God’s gracious love in Christ (Col 3:13).  

Unveiling truth 

As I teach a unit on Galatians at Dili Bible Institute (DBI), one of the major challenges for the students is understanding the role of the law in the life of a Christian. The students are mostly university age, though some are much older and some even current congregational pastors come from a variety of Protestant denominations. They assume that we are totally under law, and all the rules in the Old Testament need to be followed for the ‘Christian’ to be saved, because they are in the Bible.  However, the message of Galatians cuts totally against this.  

We…know that a person is NOT justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too,  have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the  law, because by the works of the law NO ONE will be justified. (Gal.2:16) [emphasis added] 

As I ask a few questions and point to a couple of OT laws, students see that in practice nobody does what the law requires. All their life they have been taught that being a ‘good Christian’ is about following a bunch of rules. Realising the truth of grace rocks their world. They are often surprised to find that most of the rules are not actually in the Bible, but are institutional rules that their church tradition has created. For example, men must wear long pants, women must wear a long dress to church, you mustn’t drink any alcohol or smoke, and you must give a tenth of all your income, you must only meet on Sunday/Saturday, you must be baptised in a particular way. 

Barriers to grace 

In our ministry here we have observed several significant barriers to people understanding salvation by grace.  

Firstly, many have not encountered the gospel of Jesus Christ. Being churched doesn’t equal knowing the gospel of salvation by grace. Many leaders have not been taught salvation through faith by grace and therefore they do not teach it to people. How can people believe if they have not heard?  

Secondly, Scripture is fairly inaccessible due to low levels of literacy and not having access to a good Bible translation in the local language. It’s hard for people to engage personally with the gospel. However, thankfully, there is progress being made in addressing these issues.  

Thirdly, the religious context and general sinful nature of people gives people a default disposition toward salvation by works.  

Amazing grace 

 The reality of salvation by grace is amazing, even shocking. When I have seen students or people at church confronted with grace for the first time, the response is often the same: “That sounds too good to be true…doesn’t it mean we can just do whatever we want, if we do not need to follow the laws?”  

As Paul explained, this way of thinking is not grace but legalism. Paul counters not with more rules, but with an appeal to grace 

For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:14) 

As I share with people at church and in my role of training and supporting current and future leaders for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Timor Leste, I am trying to teach them that a shift needs to take place because we now live under grace. I try to point them to Paul’s words:  

‘But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.’ (Romans 7:6)  

The person under grace will no longer desire to sin but serve in the way of the Spirit.  

Grace brings change 

How should knowing salvation by grace change people’s lives? Firstly, humility is a direct result of truly knowing salvation by grace (Ephesians 2:8 makes this crystal clear. There is no room for boasting because grace is totally independent of personal effort and totally dependent on Christ’s sacrifice. Humble acceptance of the grace offered is the only right response. Humility in leadership is extremely counter cultural in Timor Leste. When leaders show humility through serving others it shouts grace.  

Likewise, forgiveness is a counter-cultural sign of grace in action. A willingness to forgive others and recognise one’s own sin goes against the norm of retribution for wrong and refusal to admit fault. Someone who understands salvation by grace understands that at the most fundamental level forgiveness of sins is an act of God’s gracious love in Christ (Col 3:13).  

Playing a part 

We long to see the church in Timor-Leste knowing God’s grace. So how do we respond to works legalism within the church? We are seeking to proclaim, pray and practice grace.  

1. Proclaimers 

We endeavour to proclaim grace alongside our Timorese brothers and sisters, and to help raise up more proclaimers who know the gospel of grace. We also attempt what we can to make God’s word more accessible and to engage people with the gospel of truth.  

2. Pray-ers 

We seek to be humble pray-ers and ask God to show his grace to those who are seeking to earn their salvation through effort. It is possible for me to fall into thinking that my effort to attain this understanding of salvation by grace can save me. It’s a trap, knowing salvation by grace but living salvation by works. We need to humble ourselves and be reminded daily that grace is given in Christ and received freely.  

3. Practise

We practise grace by being humble servant leaders, willing to forgive and seek forgiveness. Christ relieves people of the burden of the law’s demand at the cross. Therefore we work not to place further burdens on our Timorese brothers and sisters, be it in our preaching, teaching or conversation. 

Our heart is to continually point people to the amazing grace of God shown in Christ.   

PRAY  

Give thanks that CMS missionaries like Chris and Grace are able to help church leaders and churches discover the reality of God’s amazing grace. Pray that they and their Timorese brothers and sisters in Christ may able to serve in the way of the Spirit, showing humility and forgiveness.