Unveiling Islam and Muhammad

For nearly 95 percent of the world’s population, conversion to Christianity often means disowning, disinheritance, expulsion, arrest, and even death. At this moment, for the sake of the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:16-20), men and women are being whipped into submission, tortured, imprisoned, beaten, and banned from their families. Homes are being torched, entire families executed, so-called apostates stoned to death. This, of course, is nothing new. Christians have been persecuted and tortured since the first century because of their belief in Jesus. If you believe that these events are rare, or in the past, then you are sadly misinformed.

Despite the horrors of such persecution, Christianity cannot be snuffed out. Why? Because it is more than a religion. It is not merely a set of beliefs; a certain “sect” or denomination; it is not merely one of the many ways of “getting to God.” In this case, all roads do not lead to Rome! Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior. He is the only means by which mankind can be saved and restored to a relationship with God the Father. Biblical Christianity assumes the very essence of truth. Truth implies the existence of error, and mutually exclusive claims of truth cannot both be correct.

Such is the case with Islam and Christianity. They cannot both be correct.

THE BASIS OF A RELATIONSHIP WITH ALLAH

A Muslim’s devotion is not an act of love, but of fear. I’ve learned this from talking to those who have come out from the darkness of Islam into the light of Christianity, as well as a missionary stationed in Northern Africa. I see this in biographies of men and women who were once Muslims but are now Christians. Every Muslim fears the scales of justice, which weigh his or her good deeds against their bad deeds. There is no grace; no forgiveness; no unconditional love. Moreover, there is no freedom to reject Allah. According to Hadith 9.57, those who leave the faith are to be killed.

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To the devout Muslim, “God loves you” is the brash claim of Christianity. No such statement can be found in the Qur’an. Whereas the Bible teaches that God hates sin but loves the sinner, Islamic scripture affirms that Allah hates sinners. Allah thinks even less of apostates—those who have abandoned their faith. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV). The Qur’an says, “For Allah loves not transgressors” (Surah 2:190). Even if we take Islam at face value—as a religion that speaks of God—there is a major difference in the personal quality of Allah and God.

Islam teaches that Allah sent prophets and messengers to proclaim the truth. In Christianity, God the Father sent His Son to be Truth. Jesus came to teach the Good News, to die for our sins, and to reconcile men and women to God. In Islam, it is hoped that salvation is earned through one’s good works (Surah 3:31). One must love Allah in order for Allah to love that person in return. In Christianity, God loved us first (Romans 5:8).

Quran day of judgment

There is no security for the believer of Islam. The follower of Allah is left wondering if it’s Allah’s will that they make it to Paradise. Good works can only give the hope of heaven, but never the guarantee. The question will not be answered until the Day of Judgment. For the Christian, judgment was satisfied at the cross. Of course, this is an event rejected by Muhammad and Allah. In fact, Surah 14:4 paints quite a dismal picture: “We sent not a messenger except [to teach] in the language of his people, that he may enlighten them. Then Allah leads astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. He is Almighty, All-Wise.” I’m shocked at the predetermination of this verse. Allah will decide who will enter Paradise. Faith has nothing to do with it.

In Islam, salvation is “awarded” by Allah arbitrarily to those he deems worthy. In fact, Muhammad questioned his own salvation, even though he was the greatest of prophets, supposedly appointed by Allah to “set the record straight.” According to Hadith 5.266, “Muhammad said: ‘By Allah, though I am the Apostle of Allah, yet I do not know what Allah will do to me.'” Allah will send to heaven whomever he pleases, and send to hell whomever he pleases.

Christian sects often argue over the validity and meaning of Romans 8:29-30: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (NIV). We’re told in Ephesians 1:4-5, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (NIV). In stark contrast to Allah, God had a plan for man’s salvation before He spoke the universe into existence. There are no works, special skills, incantations, indulgences, absolution, or actions to be undertaken in order to earn God’s love or to be forgiven and redeemed from our sins.

ISLAM AND POLITICS

Any religion built upon a foundation of salvation by personal righteousness—i.e., by works alone—is based on the individual loving and pleasing God before God will love them. Allah must be coaxed into loving the individual. In Chapter 4: The Daily Life of a Muslim Woman, it is stated, “Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) was called on to furnish an example through following which mankind’s love for their Maker could find full expression and its highest fulfillment by enabling them to win the love of Allah” [Italics mine]. This is quite the opposite of unconditional love. It is, in fact, nothing resembling God’s agape love.

Here is the curious “other side of the coin” in this exchange of affection and devotion for Muslims. In return for showing love to Allah, Muslims expect reciprocity. Their obedience earns prosperity. Surah 24:54-56 says, “Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them, and that He will surely establish for them [therein] their religion which He has preferred for them and that He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security, [for] they worship Me, not associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that—then those are the defiantly disobedient.”

To the Muslim, the key is that prosperity is understood as integrating politics and religion. The Islamic theology of “prosperity for devotion to Allah” shows that religion and politics are inextricably connected. This is true solely for the purpose of hijrah. Islam intends to conquer and dominate all of mankind, thus forming a worldwide caliphate. How does this differ from the Great Commission of spreading the Gospel to all corners of the world? The most vital difference is Christianity does not intend to infiltrate politics in the same manner as Islam. Christianity is a religion that focuses on mankind’s relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Islam is a theocracy that intends to force everyone, everywhere, to believe and act in exactly the same manner. It’s akin to fascism; the individual does not matter. Only the state matters.

MUHAMMAD’S MILITARY CAMPAIGN

Muhammad intended to conquer all of Northern Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe. He is known to have wiped out entire caravans of his own people in order to steal their gold, cash, and other property to fund his campaign. His prosperity depended upon the extent to which he and his fellow Muslims showed hatred toward the enemies of Allah. Interestingly, Muslims may not secretly or inwardly love the enemies of Allah even if they seemingly shun them or hate them outwardly. Surah 14:38 says, “Oh our Sustainer! Thou truly knowest all that we may hide [in our hearts] as well as all that we bring into the open: for nothing whatever, be it on earth or in heaven, remains hidden from God.”

Islam has insurmountable objections to Western civilization in general, and the United States in particular. This seems to be a fusion of their views of liberalism as the ultimate evil with medieval Islamic theories that divided the world into two hostile factions: the House of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the House of War (dar al-harb). The House of Islam included all territory under the rule of Islam, while the House of War was the rest of the world that refused to recognize the authority of Islam. The House of War is open to warfare or jihad. Thankfully, most Muslims today do not hold this view.

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This is why it upsets me to hear someone completely disparage and dismiss all Muslims in reaction to 9/11, the U.S.S. Cole, and many other violent and cowardly attacks of militant extremists. To do so is to decide to hate those we should instead want to reach with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. It amounts to choosing resentment of an entire culture of God’s children for the heinous acts of some. Remember, no one will go out of their way to help or witness to those they despise. It is only jihadis  who accept this dichotomous view of the world. They have a hatred (directed by Muhammad as outlined in the Qur’an) of anyone who is not Muslim. This hatred is the very cornerstone of their foreign policies.

For some jihadis it is not enough to assert that the conflict is a natural part of God’s order. To satisfy their reading of Islamic law, they must find some way to show that the current enemies of Islam are the aggressors. In fact, these jihadis claim it is the enemies of Islam—the infidels, specifically America and Israel—that started this war. They believe Christians and Jews are entirely responsible for the struggle between Islam and the unbelievers. In addition, these Islamic extremists identify leaders of the “liberal” West—men like George W. Bush, Tony Blair, or Donald Trump—as tyrants. The jihadis claim these men share the characteristics of the tyrants mentioned in the Qur’an. In an ironic twist, they accuse such leaders of wanting to take over the world.

Islamic extremists argue that the first representatives of unbelief were, of course, the Jews and the early Christians. They note that the Byzantine Empire took to the battlefield to destroy the Muslims, but they don’t admit that the Byzantines were merely attempting to stop Muhammad’s conquests. The Byzantine Army was not lying in wait, nor did they pursue the Arab Muslims.  Muhammad received intelligence that a Byzantine army was in North Saudi Arabia, so he called a jihad against the Byzantines. This was the first battle of Mu’tah in 629 A.D. The Islamic military then pushed in to Byzantine Syria and eventually destroyed the Empire. The Crusades were actually a plea for help from the Byzantine Emperor. Of course, the Islamic extremists see the Crusades as an attempt to wipe Islam off the face of the earth. In fact, they believe the Crusades never really ended. All interactions between European governments and America and the Muslim nations today are seen as a continuation of the “crusading spirit” of the Middle Ages.

Islam and Byzantine Empire Clashes

A CLOSER LOOK AT MUHAMMAD

Let’s take a close look at the life of Muhammad as recounted in Islamic tradition and as reflected in the Qur’an, with a focus on peace versus violence. Although there are many intractable problems that arise when studying Muhammad’s life, including questions about the historical reliability of the sources, discrepancies in archaeological findings, the reliability of the Qur’anic manuscripts, inconsistencies in geographic reports, foreign accounts of early Islam, and problematic merchant records, none of these detract from the aim to understand Muhammad according to Muslim tradition.

Prophet-Muhammad

Muhammad was born in 571 A.D. and experienced a very difficult childhood. His father died before he was born, and his grandfather passed away when he was young. In his young adulthood he became a merchant and was known for his integrity, wisdom, and skill. At the age of forty, Muhammad alleges to have received his call to become the prophet of Islam while meditating in a cave near Mecca. He said the angle Gabriel appeared to him in a revelation. Islam claims Allah sent his chief messenger, Muhammad, to guide people as the perfect exemplar. Unparalleled in wisdom, character, and spiritual devotion, Muhammad led the new Muslim community from ignorance, through oppression, and into glorious victory for the sake of Allah. These revelations resulted in the Qur’an. Muhammad claimed that he was not preaching a new religion, but simply the culmination of what God had revealed in the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus, whom Muhammad considered to be a great prophet, but not divine.

Although some traditional Muslims claim Islam has always existed, and was the first true religion—claiming as some of its prophets Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus—Muhammad introduced Islam in 610 A.D. His first thirteen years as the prophet of Islam were spent proclaiming these Qur’anic revelations to the polytheists of Mecca. The Islamic teachings proclaimed, “There is no god but God [Allah], and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The mercantile economy of Mecca was bolstered by a steady pilgrimage of polytheists to their city, which was home to 360 idols. These businessmen opposed the preaching of Muhammad, which insisted there was only one God. Muhammad essentially founded the first Muslim community, in which worship, as well as civil and political life, followed the guidelines set out by him. Muslims considered him to be flawless despite being human. Islamic theology has accorded him the title al-Insan al-Kamil, “the man who has attained perfection.”

Far from perfection, Ibn Hisham states in the introduction of his translation of Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad, Sirat Rasul Allah, that he altered the story of Muhammad’s life. “Things which it is disgraceful to discuss, matters which would distress certain people, and such reports as [my teacher] told me he could not accept as trustworthy—all these things I have omitted.” You can read the biography at archive.org, but it is a tedious process given the site has photographed the book two pages at a time and posted it for our purview. Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, writes, “I do not doubt that Ibn Hisham had noble intentions, but it does not change the fact that he altered Muhammad’s story to make it more palatable…”

MUHAMMAD’S MILITARY AND POLITICAL CAMPAIGN

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Muhammad and his followers set out on a military and political campaign that eventually gave them control over Mecca. Part of his campaign included the destruction of all idols. Muhammad escaped Mecca on the night of an assassination attempt. Historians refer to these early years of Muhammad’s ministry as his Meccan years, and they are the only years Muhammad didn’t engage in raids or battles.

The next ten years were the last of Muhammad’s life. These were his emblematic years, often called the maghazi years by classical Muslim commentators. Maghazi means “raids,” which is an appropriate description. At the end of his first year in Medina, Muhammad started launching raids.  From the time Muhammad first obtained a following, he launched raids and battles every year until he died. 

The first successful raid that Muhammad ordered, the Nakhla raid, was controversial and remains so 1,400 years later. On Muhammad’s orders, raiders were sent to intercept a Meccan caravan quite some distance from the Muslim base of Medina. Whether by Muhammad’s intention or not, the interception occurred during the holy month of Ramadan, a time of truce between all Arabs. The Muslim raiders shaved their heads, making it appear that they were on a pilgrimage. Upon seeing that the Muslims were observing the holy month, the Meccans let down their guard and began setting up camp. That is when Muhammad’s men attacked, killing and capturing undefended Meccans during a sacred time of truce, a great sin in the eyes of most Arabs.

When news of this treacherous act reached Medina, even many Muslims were understandably indignant. But then came a rather “convenient” revelation from the Qur’an, defending Muhammad’s raiders against the inquiries of the dismayed: “They ask you about fighting in the holy months. Tell them, ‘Fighting in the holy months is a great sin, but a greater sin is to prevent mankind from following the way of Allah, to disbelieve in him’… [O]pression is worse than slaughter” (Surah 2:217). According to the Qur’an, the Meccan oppression of keeping people from Islam was worse than slaughtering them during a time of truce. This attack by the Muslims during Ramadan, not at all defensive but entirely offensive, was vindicated by the Qur’an.

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While the primary source of Islamic doctrine is the Qur’an, the Qur’an is not biographical in nature, and it tells us practically nothing about Muhammad. Much of his life and sayings are contained in the Hadith. Muslims tend to focus solely on the good characteristics of their prophet, and to completely ignore less admirable qualities. We have already seen that Muhammad began robbing caravans after leaving Mecca. As a result, greed soon became one of the primary factors in people’s rapid conversion to Islam. Indeed, Muhammad deliberately used the spoils of war to lure people to Islam. When he was criticized for the way he distributed his newfound wealth, he replied, “Are you disturbed in mind because of the good things of this life by which I win over a people that they may become Muslims while I entrust you to your Islam?”

Although Muhammad patiently endured persecution in Mecca, his attitude quickly changed when his numbers grew in Medina. Soon he would tolerate no criticism whatsoever. According to our earliest biographical source, a man named Abu Afak—who was more than a hundred years old—wrote a poem criticizing people for converting to Islam. Muhammad demanded he be killed, and Abu Afak was murdered in his sleep.

Muhammad’s violence was directed toward groups as well. Muhammad once said to his followers, “I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslims.” The Jews of Qurayza resisted Muhammad and attempted to form an alliance against him. When the alliance faltered, Muhammad acted quickly. His armies surrounded them and besieged them for twenty-five nights until they were sore pressed and God cast terror into their hearts. Then they surrendered, and the apostle confined them in Medina. Muhammad had trenches dug near the market in Medina, then sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900. Every male who had reached puberty was killed. Muhammad divided the women, children, and property among his men, taking a fifth of the spoils for himself.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Muslims believe that Muhammad was morally perfect, and that an examination of his life proves he was a prophet. The evidence, however, shows that Muhammad was far from morally perfect, and that there’s no good reason to believe that he was sent by God. There is a world of difference between the Muhammad of history and the Muhammad of faith. In contrast, Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, who performed miracles, died on the cross, and rose from the dead. A careful historical investigation confirms all of these beliefs. Apologetics has done a fine job of linking incontrovertible evidence from theological and secular sources to the truth of Jesus. Thus, while Christians have absolutely nothing to fear from an examination of early historical sources, history is a huge problem for Islam.

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Christians Under Attack: Persecution & Martyrdom Through the Centuries

FROM ITS ONSET THE Christian message impacted culture and society, and culture and society impacted Christianity. Sometimes culture—to include the governing authorities—pushed back with much force, often oppressive and violent in nature. Not surprisingly, Jewish religious leaders, having publicly rejected Christ and His message by betraying Him to the Roman Empire for torture and crucifixion, also pushed back violently against the early Christian church. In fact, the earliest persecution of Christians came from the Jews.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. No sooner had the Gospel reached the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter, modify or nullify it. Simon Magus founded the Gnostics. Although this was essentially a separate belief system, it began to infiltrate the Christian church. Gnostics believed in a great god that is good and perfect, but impersonal and unknowable. They thought the creator of the universe was actually a lesser deity—a cheap knock-off of the “one true God”—who wanted to create a flawless material universe but botched the job. Instead of having a utopia, we ended up with a world infected with pain, misery, and intellectual and spiritual blindness. The Gnostics did not believe man’s dilemma was based on the Fall. Instead, when this lesser deity created man, he accidentally imbued humanity with a spark of the “true” God’s spirit, making man an inherently good soul trapped in the confines of an evil, material body.

EARLY PERSECUTION

The early Christians were initially persecuted at the hands of Jewish leaders. These principles saw Christianity not as a “new religion,” but a sect within Judaism—a new heresy going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics. Fearing these apostates could once more bring the wrath of God upon the nation of Israel, Jewish leaders began persecuting Christians on a regular basis. Frankly, the Sadducees became jealous of the apostles as they performed healings and other signs and wonders. People began believing that Jesus was the Messiah. The Sadducees arrested the apostles and threw them into jail where they were severely beaten and told never to preach in the name of Jesus again.

King Herod arrested many early Christians on behalf of the Jewish leaders. Roman authorities systematically persecuted and murdered Christians beginning in 64 A.D. Paul and Peter were martyred in 65 A.D. by Emperor Nero. Roman general Titus (later Emperor) destroyed the temple at Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Emperor Domitian (younger brother of Titus) waged a campaign of persecution against Jews and Christians from 81 to 96 A.D. Polycarp was martyred in 155 A.D. Christians suffered widespread persecution under various emperors through 303 A.D.

The first wave of mass persecution began under Nero in A.D. 67. Nero was the sixth emperor of Rome and is remembered as the one who set Rome aflame and then blamed the Christians for the deaths and destruction caused by the fire. He had Christians sewn up in skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs. Others were dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate the grounds. Remarkably, rather than diminish the spirit of Christianity, this persecution increased the devotion and commitment to Christianity.

A second wave of persecution occurred under Domitian circa A.D. 81. Any negative events that happened—famine, pestilence, earthquakes, drought—Domitian blamed on Christians and put them to death. A third outbreak of persecution occurred under Trajan in A.D. 108. During this wave, Christians were beaten, beheaded, and devoured by wild beasts. Nearly ten thousand were put to death. The fourth cycle of persecution took place under Marcus Aurelius Antoninas in A.D. 162, followed by a fifth wave credited to Severus in A.D. 192. Christians were burned at the stake, doused in hot tar, beheaded, placed in boiling water, and ravaged by wild beasts.

The sixth upsurge of persecution took place under Maximus in A.D. 235. At this time, numerous Christians were slain without trial and buried indiscriminately in heaps (mass graves), sometimes fifty or sixty cast into a pit together. The seventh surge of persecution happened under Decius in A.D. 249. At this time, the principle person martyred was Fabian, the bishop of Rome, who was beheaded on January 20, A.D. 250. The eighth wave of persecution occurred under Valerian in A.D. 257. The ninth wave of persecution occurred under Aurelian in A.D. 274 when Felix, bishop of Rome was martyred. A tenth flood of persecution took place under Diocletian in A.D. 303, commonly called the Era of the Martyr’s. The manner of persecutions included horrific methods such as racks, scourges, swords, daggers, crosses, poisons, and famine.

MARTYRDOM TIMELINE

Stephen was the first known martyr. He was stoned to death in 36 A.D. for preaching the Gospel. Stephen’s death sparked a rash of persecutions against all who professed belief in Christ as the Messiah.

The fate of the Apostles and close disciples followed in succession.

  • James the Great, the elder brother of John the Apostle, was beheaded in A.D. 44.
  • James the Lesser, the brother of Jesus, served the church in Jerusalem and wrote the book of James. He suffered martyrdom in 44 A.D. at the age of ninety-four by beheading and stoning at the hands of the Jews.
  • Philip, who served in Upper Asia, was scourged in Phrygia, thrown into prison and later crucified in A.D. 54.
  • Matthew the tax collector served the Lord in Parthia and Ethiopia where he was slain with an axe-like cutting blade in the city of Nadabah in A.D. 60.
  • Andrew, the brother of Peter, preached the gospel throughout Asia. He was crucified on a cross at Edessa in 60 A.D.
  • Peter was martyred by Nero in 64 A.D. He was crucified with his head down and his feet up, because he thought himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus Christ.
  • Simon the Zealot, who spread the Gospel throughout Africa and Britain, was crucified in 65 A.D.
  • Paul was subjected to persecution numerous times during his ministry, including scourging, stoning, and, finally, beheaded by Nero in 67 A.D.
  • Mark was martyred in 68 A.D. in Alexandria when his persecutors placed a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he was dead.
  • Jude, the brother of James, commonly called Thaddeus, was crucified at Edessa in A.D. 72.
  • Bartholomew preached in several countries and translated the Gospel of Matthew into the language of India. He was cruelly beaten and crucified in 100 A.D.
  • Thomas, who seems to have riled the pagan priests with his preaching, was martyred in 72 A.D. by having a spear thrust into his abdomen.
  • Matthias, the man who was chosen to replace Judas as an apostle, was stoned and beheaded at Jerusalem in 80 A.D.
  • Luke was reported to have been hanged from an olive tree by the idolatrous priests of Greece in 84 A.D.

MODERN-DAY PERSECUTION

Persecution of Christians actually began at the dawn of Christianity and has persisted in various forms ever since. Stoning, burning at the stake, imprisonment, family estrangement, beheading, crucifixion, scourging, being dragged to the death, drowning, and more. History is stained with the blood of martyrs and is augmented by the testimony of those who’ve endured hardship for their faith in Jesus Christ.

Despite this being the 21st century, which should suggest we ought to be well beyond religious bigotry and cultural xenophobia, modern-day Christian persecution is still prevalent. The Bible says that Jesus has called believers out from among the world. We’re told in John 15:19, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” When Jesus sent His disciples into the world to preach the Gospel, He knew they would be attacked and persecuted for witnessing and sharing Jesus. In Mathew 10:16, Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Anti-Christian discrimination occurs in a variety of contexts throughout our culture, from the public sector to the private sector, in mainstream media and in Hollywood, in the public education system and in our universities. Often discrimination comes from activist judges misinterpreting the law (the hostility toward Christian religious freedom infects our judiciary as much as other aspects of society); other times it comes from entities misapplying the law. It also comes from what today is referred to as political correctness. Discrimination against Christians mostly stems from a hostility toward Christianity itself, and from rampant misinformation about what the First Amendment actually means regarding so-called “separation of church and state.”

Unfortunately, anti-Christian discrimination in America is becoming more blatant and more widespread every day. The cultural assumptions of our society can actually cause adverse impact in how the law is applied; culture is moving against public expression of Christian beliefs. To complicate matters, secularism and moral relativism have driven a wedge between Christian belief and public expression. Forces are at work whose sole intent is to outlaw the voicing of Christian beliefs in any public forum.

Christian expression is treated as profanity and worse in many public schools and certain federal courts across the nation. According to an article by Michael Gryboski on Christianpost.com, dated October 12, 2018, a middle school in Virginia has banned songs mentioning Jesus from its annual Christmas concert as part of an effort to be more sensitive toward the increasingly diverse population of its student body. The critical language of the First Amendment relative to religion—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—has been misinterpreted and misquoted in recent years. It is now being argued by many that the First Amendment grants freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion. More troublesome than that, it’s now being argued by liberals and atheists that American citizens have a First Amendment right to freedom from Christianity. All other religions are tolerated in the interest of pluralism and inclusion.

David Limbaugh, in his seminal book Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, states the following:

Ideally, the schools should strive for neutrality on matters of religion—at least in expressing a preference for one over the other. But, in reality, our children are often being inculcated with values and attitudes that conflict with or are hostile to Christianity… There has been a systematic sweeping away of all things Christian from our public schools, combined with a sweeping in of secularism (p. 4).

THE MEDIA AND HOLLYWOOD

Mainstream media and Hollywood play very major roles in bias against Christians and Christianity in our modern culture. We’re told that it is unthinkable to ridicule (almost any) political, religious, cultural, or ethnic group, yet liberals routinely disparage Christians and anything related to Christianity.  This anti-Christian proclivity typically manifests itself in unflattering portrayals of Christians in Hollywood films and television shows. Additionally, liberal news outlets tend to demonize Christian conservatives. Christians are presented as bigoted, narrow-minded, unreasonable, old-fashioned, exclusionary, and elitist. Remarkably, while the media are usually very careful not to offend or slight other religions—lately, especially Islam—Christianity receives far less deference.

OPEN DOORS USA

Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Unfortunately, Christian torture remains an issue for believers throughout the world, including the risk of imprisonment, loss of home and assets, physical torture, beheading, rape and even death as a result of their faith. Trends show that countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are intensifying persecution against Christians. It would seem the most vulnerable are Christian women , who often face double persecution—based on faith and gender. Every day there are new reports of Christians who face threats, unjust imprisonment, harassment, beatings and even loss of family or life because of their profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Some Alarming Statistics

Every month:

  • 255 Christians are killed
  • 104 are abducted
  • 180 Christian women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage
  • 66 churches are attacked
  • 160 Christians are detained without trial and imprisoned

Every year, Open Doors USA releases the World Watch List—a global indicator of countries where human and religious rights are being violated, and those countries most vulnerable to societal unrest and destabilization. This is the 26thyear of the Watch List and it remains the only annual in-depth survey to rank the 50 most difficult countries in which to be a Christian. Today, 215 million Christians experience high levels of persecution in the countries on the World Watch List—essentially one in twelve Christians worldwide. North Korea is ranked #1 for the 17th consecutive year as the most dangerous country for Christians. During the 2018 World Watch List reporting period 3,066 Christians were killed, 1,252 were abducted, 1,020 were raped or sexually harassed, and 793 churches were attacked. Islamic oppression fuels Christian persecution in 8 of the top 10 countries on the Watch List.

SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER

We have come to the point where the church sees liberalism and moral relativism for the threats they truly are. But where does that leave us? It seems that modern polarization into left and right—within both religion and politics—has been with us since after the period of the Enlightenment. It’s no secret that modernism and Protestant liberalism were shaken to their very foundation following the two world wars. The resulting postmodernism did nothing whatsoever to solve our dilemma. Christians wanted to share with the world their conviction that the Gospel was the answer to this quandary—that it was the absolute truth everyone had been looking for.

We are told in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (NKJV). The Word of Christ is not merely a matter of doctrine; it is a way of authenticating life; it is morally regenerative spiritual power obtained through belief in Christ as the Messiah. It is life itself. This is why apologetics is vital. We are to preach the Good News to all nations. First Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (NIV) [Italics mine].

Changing someone’s mind isn’t the only goal of apologetics. In fact, that’s unlikely to happen in the heat of the moment. Instead, we should think of any apologetic encounter as planting a seed that will come to fruition later. Or, even more, perhaps we’re simply helping prepare the soil so that someone else can do the planting. I don’t mean to imply that God cannot do big things when we practice apologetics. Just remember this: We often don’t get to see firsthand the unfolding of those big moments.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the idea of apologetics—the concepts and arguments. Apologetics, however, is actually a means to an end. It is a tool for helping us defend the Gospel, but it is not about getting defensive. Sometimes, talking about morality and religion can really get some people going—even to the point where you find it tough to get a word in edgewise. But allowing your skeptical friend to share their ideas or experiences is a key part of effectively navigating spiritual conversations. Unfortunately, some of us can get rather defensive and feel pressured to take on the weight of explaining the entirety of the Christian worldview when confronted with one simple objection to the faith.

Love the people you come into contact with. Ask questions and genuinely listen. Be gentle and humble.

Be like Jesus.

References

Limbaugh, D. (2004). Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

OpenDoors USA. (n.d.) Christian Persecution. Retrieved from: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/

 

 

In Christ

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. —1 Corinthians 15:22

It is important that we know how God sees us. This can be rather difficult given our tendency to think the worst of ourselves, or to define our lives through the lens of others. One of the richest passages about identity in Scripture is Ephesians 1:7-14:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

In this passage, Paul explains the many aspects of our new identity in Christ. We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing; we have been chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, lavished with grace; unconditionally loved and accepted; we are pure, blameless and forgiven; we have received the hope eternity with God. When we are in Christ, these aspects of our identity can never be altered by what we do.

Often, we feel the pressure to define ourselves through our jobs, financial status, successes, grades, appearance, what other people say about us and many other means.

As Christians, our true identity is in Christ. We are no longer who we were. Paul calls us saints, set apart by and for God, and invariably addresses us as those who are in Christ. He implores us to live our lives in Christ, as he also lives, saying, “I glory in Christ” (Romans 15:17). In his epistles he encourages us to be in Christ, in him, or in the Lord 160 times. What it means to be in Christ is exactly the opposite of what it means to be in ourselves. In other words, if we are not in Christ, we are only into us. It’s all about us and no one else.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

So what does it mean to have our identity in Christ? It’s not just a matter of claiming Bible verses for ourselves, or starting our mornings reciting key Scripture. To have our identity in Christ means placing our confidence for life and eternity in Christ alone. To be in Christ involves being formed into the image of the Lord. It means wanting others to see Jesus when they look at us. Galatians 3:26-28 says, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV) [Italics mine].

To be in Christ is to be clothed in His righteousness. If you are in Christ, you are a new creation in Him. Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV). Prior to conversion, Paul knew “about” Christ merely as another man. At conversion, Paul became a new creation. The old passed away, indicating the definitive change that took place at regeneration. Paul adds, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (verse 21). Being in Christ means having His righteousness. This position is made available to us as a result of God’s grace. Because we have no righteousness of our own, this is of paramount importance in order to stand before God.

According to Scripture, we die in Adam but are born again in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:22). In Adam, there is condemnation; but in Christ, there is salvation. In Adam, we receive a sin nature; but in Christ, we receive a new nature. In Adam, we are cursed; but in Christ, we’re blessed. In Adam, there is wrath and death; but in Christ, there is love and life. It’s as if there are two teams in life. We each take to the field with one of them. The decisions made by the team captains affect the entire team, for better or worse. The first team is led by Adam, and the second by Jesus. We identify with Adam and share in his defeat, or we identify with Jesus and share in his victory. In other words, are we in Adam or are we in Christ?

OUR IDENTITY AS BELIEVERS

The main theme in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is identity formation. Union with Christ gives us a radically new identity. Ephesians 4:20-24 says, “That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (NIV).

The phrase “in Christ” literally changed the world and is the very essence of our identity as believers. In speaking of identity, Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NIV). When Paul talks about the new I is he talking about who he was before Christ in combination with who he now is in Christ, or is he referring only to the new creation in Christ? Considering the words of Jesus in John 15:5, it seems he might be speaking of both. We are re-created in Christ, but we are not able to exist as a new creation apart from Him.

Spiritual growth in the Christian life requires a relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the fountain of spiritual life—a relationship that brings a new seed or root of life. As in nature, unless there is some seed or root of life within an organism, no growth can occur. Likewise, unless there is a root of life within the believer (i.e., some core of spiritual life), growth is impossible. There is nothing to grow! This fits nicely with the analogy of vine and branches. Frankly, this is why Paul’s theology is based solely on our position in Christ. He was brilliantly able to point out the constant struggle within himself between doing that which he did not want to do and not being able to consistently do that which he wanted to do.

NEW HEART, NEW SPIRIT

We’re told in the Bible that the center of the person is the heart. Proverbs 4:23 identifies the heart as the “wellspring of life” (NIV). In our natural state of being, the heart is deceitful above all things (see Jeremiah 17:9). Born under sin, we are conditioned by the deceitfulness of a fallen world rather than by the truth of God’s Word. In Ezekiel 36:26 we read, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (NIV). From the moment we are born again we are grafted into the vine—sanctified and set apart as children of God.

We have to believe that our new identity is in the life of Christ and commit ourselves to grow accordingly.

We read in Colossians 3:9-10, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (NIV). Biblical scholar and author F.F. Bruce says, “…the new man who is created is the new personality that each believer becomes when he is reborn as a member of the new creation whose source of life is Christ.” But exactly what does it mean to be a new man? Does it mean every aspect of us is changed? After all, we still look the same physically. Our voice sounds the same. We still have many of the same thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Our DNA does not change when we become born again. Our past, although forgiven (and forgotten) by God, is still our past. We carry emotional baggage with us well into our future even as new believers.

The Natural Person

In our natural state, we must contend with flesh, mind, will, and emotions. First Corinthians 2:14 says, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (NIV). The word flesh typically refers to the body, but theologically it can also refer to the learned independence that allows sin to reign in our lives. We struggle in the flesh with inferiority, insecurity, inadequacy, guilt, worry, and doubt. Our mind is the seat of obsessive, recurrent, distressing thoughts and images, which are often at the root of compulsive behavior, bad habits, and addiction. Our body is the situs for migraines, allergies, asthma, arthritis, heart problems, cancer, and other physical ailments. Our emotions include depression, anxiety, bitterness, anger, resentment, and many other sensitivities.

We are spiritually dead in our natural state—separated from God. Accordingly, we tend to sin as a matter of course. We have a soul, in that we can think, feel, and choose. Our mind, and subsequently our emotions and will, are directed by our flesh, which acts completely apart from God. In our natural state, we tend to believe we are free to choose our behavior. But because we live in the flesh, we invariably walk according to the flesh. Our choices reflect the “deeds of the flesh” we read about in Galatians 5:19-21. Our actions, reactions, habits, memories, and responses are all governed by the flesh.

The Spiritual Person

When we become renewed by the Spirit, we are able to crucify our flesh by recognizing we are now dead to sin. Our mind is transformed. Paul said, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2, NIV). As we present ourselves as a living and holy sacrifice, our body becomes a temple of God. Our soul reflects changes brought about by our spiritual rebirth. We start receiving the impetus for our behavior from the Spirit rather than from our flesh.

Remarkably, we are now free to choose not to walk according to the flesh, but to walk according to the Spirit. When we exercise our choice to live in the Spirit, our lives exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). I refer to this as the dichotomy of true freedom. Additionally, our bodies have been transformed. We have become the dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. We can now choose daily to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable service. Our flesh is conditioned to live independently from God under the old man. Unfortunately, our flesh is still present after we’ve been born again. The difference is we’ve been given the resources to crucify the flesh and its desires daily by recognizing who we are in Christ.

BEING IN CHRIST WILL CHANGE OUR WALK

Becoming a new believer does not anoint us with magical sin-defying powers. We are still spring-loaded toward fleshly behavior. A life of fleshly habits does not just vanish. We tend to go on living according to what we know, and we don’t know much about living a Spirit-filled life. As we grow and mature in Christ, we tend to lean toward the Spirit. We occasionally make poor choices—we’re human after all. However, we are learning daily to crucify the flesh and walk by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. This walk is built on relationship, not subordination.

Freedom doesn’t just lie in the exercise of choice; it ultimately lies in the consequences of those choices.

Paul defines what it means to walk by the Spirit in Galatians 5:16-18: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (NIV). Paul is quick to note what walking in the Spirit is not a license to sin. License, in this regard, is contempt for rules and regulations constituting an abuse of privilege. Amazingly, some Christians wrongly assert that walking by the Spirit and living under grace means I can do whatever I want to do. On the contrary, walking by the Spirit means we are free (from the dominion of the flesh) to live a responsible, moral life—something we were incapable of doing when we were a bond servant of sin.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

I cannot overstate how important it is that we come to understand how God sees us. We must fight the tendency to define ourselves based on our past sins and transgressions, or through the lens of others. In Christ we have redemption; we have the forgiveness of sins. Additionally, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. We are no longer who we were. We have become saints, set apart by and for God. To be in Christ is to be clothed in His righteousness. We are literally given a new identity in Christ. It is through walking in the Spirit that we are able to deny our flesh, but we must do this daily. This is only achievable when we recognize and operate in the truth of who we are as new Christians. 

As we grow and mature in Christ, we tend to lean toward the Spirit. This helps increase the odds that we make the right choices relative to behavior. Paul warns against the practice of sin. Because we still occupy a fleshly body, and still possess a mind, a will, and emotions—along with baggage and past experiences—we are prone to take the wide road rather than the harder, narrow road. Being in Christ is not merely about being forgiven and living under grace. It is not a license to sin. Rather, it is about living a responsible, moral life. It is about being free to choose righteousness over sin. It is about being in right relationship with God.

 

 


 

Justification

MARTIN LUTHER STRUGGLED a great deal with the idea of justification and righteousness. He was so obsessed with sinning and offending God and worried he would die having failed to confess everything. He spent a great deal of time ruminating about his behavior. He unfortunately focused how he could punish himself  and assure that he would be redeemed and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Luther often deprived himself of comforts, including blankets and coats during cold weather, and often flagellated himself as punishment.

Luther became fixated on Paul’s letter to the Romans. He could not grasp the manner by which he could ever hope to become “righteous” in God’s eyes. He was especially concerned about Romans 1:17, which says, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther, in his Preface to his Commentary on Romans (1552 A.D.), wrote

This Espistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.

It seems Luther was quite concerned about the orientation of his heart and about how he might earn salvation. He wrote, “How can a man prepare himself for good by means of works, if he does no good works without displeasure and unwillingness of heart? How shall a work please God, if it proceeds from a reluctant and resisting heart?” This was his personal obsession: Is my heart right with God? Can I possibly be worthy of redemption? How can I put on the righteousness of Christ? No doubt he was tormented with the example of Paul regarding the struggle to do good. Paul wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me… For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-17, 19).

In his commentary, Luther wrote, “So also the Apostle says in in 7:15: ‘That which I do, I allow not” (I do not approve). The Apostle means to say: As a spiritual man I recognize only what is good, and yet I do what I do not desire, namely, that which is evil, not indeed willfully and maliciously. But while I choose the good, I do the opposite. The carnal man, however, knows what is evil, and he does it intentionally, willfully and by choice.” Looking again at Romans 1:17, Luther said,

God certainly desires to save us not through our own righteousness, but through the righteousness and wisdom of someone else or by means of a righteousness which does not originate on earth, but comes down from heaven. So, then, we must teach a righteousness which in every way comes from without and is entirely foreign to us.

God’s righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which alone we are accounted righteous before Him. Luther struggled to understand how it is we become righteous. Not surprisingly, Romans 1:17 directly affected the course of the Protestant Reformation more than any other. The moment Luther grasped in his heart the process by which we put on the righteousness of Christ a gate opened to heaven. He was able to grasp that it is only through God’s love and grace and justice that we can become righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ.

Of course, it took Luther asking the right questions: What does this mean, that there’s this righteousness that is by faith, and from faith to faith? What does it mean that the righteous shall live by faith? Again, verse 17 contains the theme for the whole exposition of the Gospel that Paul lays out in Romans. Luther could now understand that what Paul was speaking of here was a righteousness that God in His grace was making available. It is to be received passively, not actively. Rather, it is received by faith

From a linguistics standpoint, the Latin word for justification that was used at this time in church history is justificare from the Roman judicial system. The term is made up of the word justus, which translates “justice or righteousness,” and the infinitive verb facare, which means “to make.” But Luther was looking now at the Greek word used in the New Testament: dikaios, or dikaiosune, which does not mean “to make righteous,” but rather to regard as righteous, to count as righteous, to declare as righteous. This allowed Luther to realize that the doctrine of justification is what happens when God sees us clothed in righteousness through our faith in Jesus Christ. Justification does not come through sacraments or priestly absolution or by an edict handed down from the pope. This position shines through in Luther’s 95 Theses that launched the Reformation.

Consider three theses written by Luther:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.

The word cannot be properly understood as referring the sacrament of penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

Those who preach indulgences are in error when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the pope’s indulgences.

So Luther said, “Whoa, you mean the righteousness by which I will be saved, is not mine?” Nope. It’s what he called a justitia alienum, meaning “alien righteousness.” It’s a righteousness that belongs properly to someone else. A righteousness that is extra nos, outside of us. It is the righteousness of Christ. Luther said, “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. The doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.” Luther considered justification to be the article by which the church stands or falls.

WHAT IS JUSTIFICATION?

Justification and righteousness are legal terms. Following a trial, a verdict is declared as to how the individual now stands before the court.  In Scripture, to justify does not mean to make righteous in the sense of changing a person’s character. We’re not magically changed into righteousness; instead, we are declared righteous in the eyes of the Lord. When He looks at us, He no longer sees our sins. He has wiped them away and remembers them no more. Rather, when the Father looks at us He sees Jesus.

Here are several key points regarding justification:

  • Justification is the opposite of condemnation. In Deuteronmy 25:1 the judges are to acquit (justify) the innocent and condemn the guilty. Clearly, to condemn does not literally mean “to make them guilty,” but rather to “declare them to be guilty,” and so determine them to be “guilty” by the verdict. In other words, if a man or woman stands accused of a crime and wins an acquittal, the verdict does not render an otherwise guilty person innocent. The verdict does not change the facts. After all, guilty people win acquittal in criminal court. It’s a matter of applying the law to the evidence and making a declaration.
  • The terms with which righteousness is associated have a judicial character—for example, consider the emphasis in Genesis 18:25 on God as the Judge.
  • The expressions used as synonyms or substitutes for justify do not have the sense of “making righteous,” but carry a declarative or constitutive sense.
  • The ultimate proof that justification involves a status changed by public declaration lies in the biblical view that through the resurrection Jesus Himself was “justified” (1 Timothy 3:16). The justification of Christ was not an actual alteration in His character. Rather, it refers to His vindication by the Father through the triumph and victory of the resurrection. Romans 1:4 says, “And who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (NIV).

THE POWER OF JUSTIFICATION

The practical impact of this doctrine cannot be overstated. The wonder of the Gospel is that God has declared Christians to be rightly related to Him in spite of their sin. Luther struggled with the same thing I have on many occasions. That is, assuming that we remain justified only so long as there are grounds in our character for justification. Paul’s epistle teaches us that nothing we ever do contributes to our justification. Frankly, there is nothing adequate we could do. Ever.

Justification is more than forgiveness; it involves being cleared of all blame, free from every charge of sin lodged against you. In a secular court, a judge cannot both forgive a man and justify him at the same time. If he forgives the defendant, then the man must be guilty and therefore he cannot be justified. If the judge justifies the defendant, the accused does not need forgiveness. God forgives the sin and justifies the sinner. Plugging this analogy into the Gospel, God forgives the guilty and condemned sinner and literally places him in a new position devoid of any charge against him at all (see Romans 8:1).

IT’S A MATTER OF FAITH, NOT A MATTER OF LAW

No one is justified by his or her own actions. Romans 3:20, 22-23 says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin… this righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV).

God justly justifies sinners through the work of Christ. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 2:2). When we confess our sins, we discover that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from our own unrighteousness. Of course, this still begs the question How does Christ’s righteousness become ours? Martin Luther was able to settle on faith in Christ. No works of ours, no good resolutions or reformation, can justify us or contribute one little bit to our justification. Such outwardly good works are really our attempt at self-righteousness. For us to be justified, Jesus must pay the penalty for our sins, and we must receive that payment by faith.

At the center of Paul’s teaching is the cross of Jesus and faith in the sacrifice of the crucified Lord. Paul wrote, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:1, NIV).  Certainly, God’s wrath is revealed in His response to sin. Without a valid source of justification, we’d have no choice but to face that wrath. We deserve it. God also demonstrates His righteousness in the salvation of men. His wrath toward the sinner was poured out on Jesus Christ who died an agonizing and horrendous death in our place. God’s anger was appeased in Christ. Accordingly, God is able to save and to bless everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and who receives His salvation by faith.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Justification is of grace, to be received as a gift by faith in order that God may guarantee his promise of salvation. If justification depended on works, it would be unattainable. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that justification were attainable. It would be subject to decay unless we were able continue justifying ourselves by works. Thankfully, justification is all about grace. It is based on the work of Christ, not on our works. Accordingly, God is able to guarantee our justification. We have assurance of our salvation and the hope of heaven. Once forgiven, our standing in God’s eyes is that of a “just” or “righteous” person. The empowerment of God’s Spirit enables one to continue in righteousness.

Being justified by God means that once redeemed we can become partakers of His divine nature, and we can aim for perfection. The divine image, with moral and spiritual perfection, which was imparted to us in the Garden of Eden and subsequently marred and distorted by sin, is now our goal. We must not let God’s gift of justification by faith lead to becoming complacent. Like Paul, we should be diligent in our efforts towards spiritual perfection and sensitive to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

We Are God’s Co-Workers

For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. —1 Corinthians 3:9 (NIV).

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WE ARE ALL CALLED to serve the Lord in one manner or another. We are His co-workers; part of the ultimate synergy—working as partners with God in the quest to spread the Gospel.

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Ours is a five-fold Gospel. Ephesians 4:11-13 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (NIV). This Scripture passage highlights five distinct areas or roles of ministry which God has given to the church so that the Body of Christ can operate effectively and reach maturity. Essentially, the five-fold orientation to ministry places church leaders in groups specific to their gift in order to serve the church. The purpose of five-fold ministry is simply to serve. The end-goal is not merely training ministers within the church; it is to equip the church to become Christ. This is how we are able to participate with Jesus in restoration that comes after redemption.

Old Testament Leadership

There are six different forms of leadership throughout the Old Testament:

  1. Covenant bearers–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  2. Divinely directed or appointed–Moses, Joshua.
  3. Priests–Aaron, Levites.
  4. Judges–Deborah, Gideon, Samson.
  5. Kings–Saul, David.
  6. Prophets–Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel.

The three offices having the greatest effect on leadership during the Old Testament were the offices of priest, prophet and king. Remarkably, Jesus truly fulfilled each of the five offices in New Testament leadership: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher. He is the King of kings; our High Priest and Intercessor standing at the right hand of God; He was a prophet; He taught his disciples; He was pastor (a shepherd).

New Testament Leadership

Jesus and the Twelve

The New Testament leadership model operates quite differently to any we’ve seen in the Old Testament. Although prophets are mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, their ministries are slightly different. The greatest reasons for the different leadership model in the New Testament are important to consider. First, because God’s people now have direct access to the Father through Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we’re not in need of an earthly intercessor, such as a priest. Second, the Holy Spirit—who is the constant presence, power and witness of God—resides in each of us from the moment we claim Christ as our Lord and Savior. Because of these two significant factors, God created a new leadership model for the church following the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Some maintain that the five-fold ministry was only meant for the “Apostolic Age” (30 to 90 A.D.), and was limited to growing the church throughout the early Christian era. Others object on the basis that it creates an unnecessary elite hierarchy in church leadership. When properly understood, the five-fold ministry takes the emphasis away from a hierarchical leadership and distributes leadership across the Body of Christ in accordance with the call or gift given each of us by God. These leadership roles are not merely “titles” but ministry functions. The focus is not on the individual, but rather on the task being performed. The purpose is purely to prepare God’s people for works of service “…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13, NIV).

BOUND TOGETHER WITH GOD

We are bound together with God as His co-workers. This requires sacrifice on our part. We have to lose something of ourselves to Him. Interestingly, it is easier to be a servant than a co-worker. Many today who call themselves servants of the Lord simply lack the capacity to suffer together with the Lord. What the church needs is not a group of able workers but those who are bound together with God through thick and thin, no matter the consequences. This is what is meant by Take up your cross and follow me. When God works, you work. When God rests, you rest. When God withdraws, you withdraw. When God moves forward, you move forward. Bound together. No matter what.

Paul notes the following signs and activities that typically accompany working in the ministry: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything (see 2 Corinthians 6:4-10).

THROUGH GOOD REPORTS AND BAD

As a co-worker of God, we can expect people to talk about us, judge, us, and try to take the wind of of our testimony. I’m sure you’ve had people speak poorly of you over the years. Sometimes we deserve it, yet we need to be mindful of our public behavior as believers so that we do not detract from the Gospel. Not surprisingly, when we become effective partners with Jesus in His ministry, people begin to look closely at everything we say and do. Usually, Satan leaves us alone when we’re bouncing along, doing what we please, living in the flesh, not doing the Lord’s work. We’re no threat to the devil when we’re not bringing non-believers to the Lord. When we are faithful to God and set out to present ourselves appropriately in society, evil reports may abound concerning us in an attempt to take the efficacy out of our testimony. This is just a part of the spiritual warfare we’re engaged in on a daily basis (see Ephesians 6:12).

Witnessing for Christ

Jesus warned His disciples about attempts to destroy their witness. In Matthew 5:11, He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (NIV). Good reports come from other believers and those who have been able to grasp the truth of the Gospel. We need to be faithful co-workers with God; to learn to suffer and to accept all reports and proofs that we are bound together with Him.

BE FOUND STILL LABORING

Paul told the believers at Corinth that they were co-laborers together with God. He instructed them, “Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1, RSV). It is a great privilege to be regarded as laborers together with the Lord, and to be counted as His servants. Despite all the evil we’ve done while unbelievers—even the sins we’ve committed as Christians—God chooses to use us anyway. For me, that was sweet music to my ears. Paul said God’s grace should motivate us to be found still laboring when Jesus returns. The last thing we should want is God to consider it a waste that He entrusted us to labor with Him. Instead, we want to hear, “Well done My good and faithful servant.”

Great Commission Banner

We have received the Lord’s great commission (see Matthew 28:18-20), charging us with working toward fulfilling God’s divine objective—spreading the Gospel to the four corners of the world. In addition, we are to work together with Jesus in reconciling mankind to Him and to the Father. Paul wrote, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:1-6, NIV).

We are merely to plant a seed. Share Christ. Share our newness in Him. Paul said, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18, NIV). We achieve this freedom only through knowing the truth (see John 8:32). Every man is the servant of the master to whose commands he yields himself; whether it be the sinful dispositions of his heart, in actions which lead to death, or the new and spiritual obedience implanted by regeneration. Paul was so pleased to see the new believers at Rome obeying the Gospel from their hearts. Paul wanted to express the great difference in the liberty of the mind and spirit—a complete opposite to the state of slavery to the body and to sin. When we’re willing to remain slaves to sin, we remain in bondage, struggling in our own power to deny the flesh and walk in the Spirit. The Greek word for “slave” in this passage is doulos, meaning “bondsman, man of servile condition.” More specifically, “…devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interests.”

Paul never gave himself credit for all he did in preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. Instead, he said, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7) [Italics mine]. It is God who gives the increase.

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Paul noted, “Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:17-19). Paul went even further, stating he chose to preach the Gospel where others had not gone before him “…so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (v. 20b). I’m amazed at the humility Paul expresses in this simple statement.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

We should be proud to serve the Lord successfully, but only when we can (with deference to Him) recognize that we are mere instruments in His hands; instruments of His work and not ultimately the workers ourselves. Because we are God’s instruments—indeed, His co-workers—our goal is to be faithful. He produces fruit through us; we do not give the growth. That would be beyond our capacity. We plant. He waters. He gives the increase. We live faithfully by working hard unto the Lord and by trusting Him to accomplish His purpose. We must never trust in our own efforts. After all, what can we give to God that we have not first received from His hand?

What greater work could there be and what great Co-Worker could we have?

“Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it” (Mark 16:20, NIV).

Jesus Calling

EXCERPT FROM JESUS CALLING: ENJOYING PEACE IN HIS PRESENCE
©2013 Sarah Young
February 9

SEEK MY FACE more and more. You are really just beginning your journey of intimacy with Me. It is not an easy road, but it is a delightful and privileged way: a treasure hunt. I am the Treasure, and the Glory of My Presence glistens and shimmers along the way. Hardships are part of the journey too. I mete them out ever so carefully, in just the right dosage, with a tenderness you can hardly imagine. Do not recoil from afflictions since they are among My most favored gifts. Trust Me and don’t be afraid, for I am your Strength and Song.

When you said, “Seek my face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, LORD, I will seek.” —Psalm 27:8 (NKJV)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair. —2 Cor. 4:7-8

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. —Isaiah 12:2

 

References

Young, S. (2013). Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Press.

Shame vs. Guilt

Shame Depends on How We Believe We are Viewed by Others Due to our Behavior; Guilt Involves the Awareness of Having Done Something Wrong.

YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED that many people use the words shame and guilt interchangeably. This is regrettable because, from a psychological perspective, they actually refer to different experiences. Guilt and shame sometimes go hand in hand; the same action may give rise to feelings of both shame and guilt, where the former reflects how we feel about ourselves and the latter involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else. In other words, shame relates to self, guilt to others.

Looking first to the dictionary definitions, we see the following:

  • Guilt. A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
  • Shame. The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, hurtful, etc., done by oneself or another.

As noted before, in everyday language people tend to use these words more or less interchangeably. From a therapeutic perspective, the distinction can be most important and useful. Many people crippled by shame have very little capacity to feel guilt, for example. In order to feel guilt about the harm you may have done to somebody else, you must recognize him or her as a distinct individual. A person who struggles with interpersonal relationships, or who has a mental illness—such as attachment disorder, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder—might not feel true guilt even if he or she were to use that word to describe a feeling.

Many people who display narcissistic behavior often suffer from profound feelings of shame, but have little authentic concern for other people; they don’t tend to feel genuine guilt. The lack of empathy found in narcissistic and other personality disorders makes real guilt unlikely since guilt depends upon the ability to intuit how someone else might feel.

When shame is especially pervasive, it usually precludes feelings of genuine concern and guilt from developing; the sense of being damaged is so powerful and painful that it crowds out one’s feelings for anyone else. In such cases, idealization often comes into play. Other people are then viewed as perfect, “the lucky ones” who have the ideal shame-free life we crave. Envy may be at the root of these thoughts.

SHAME

Shame says, “There’s something inherently wrong with me that isn’t wrong with everyone else.” It tells you that you’re worthless and incapable. Therefore, you must find some way to prove your own worth. At its worst, shame says, “I am outside the love of God.” A person with a shamed sense of identity reads the Scriptures and usually feels condemned. Unfortunately, far too many believers are feeling dirty, worthless, ashamed of themselves; convinced their offenses are beyond the reach of the cross. Having such a poisonous attitude about yourself can lead to belief that you are unclean and therefore unworthy to approach God and have the living and intimate relationship that He wants to have with you. Shame prevents us from intimacy with God because it makes us feel unworthy and distant from Him.

Shame causes us to make statements like this:

  • I often think about past failures or experiences of rejection.
  • There are certain things I cannot recall about my past without feeling guilt, shame.
  • I seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.
  • I feel inferior.
  • There are aspects of my appearance that I cannot except.
  • I am generally disgusted with myself.
  • I feel that certain experiences have basically ruined my life.
  • I perceive myself as an immoral person.
  • I feel that I have lost the opportunity to experience a wonderful life.

Healing from shame involves learning to get our sense of value and significance from God. We need to get out from behind the secrecy of this idea that we are unsalvageable because shame is grown in secrecy. Remember, we’re only as sick as our secrets. We have to start counting our blessings and develop a grateful spirit.

GUILT

There are some significant differences between guilt and shame. Guilt is what takes place when a person realizes their failure. The source of guilt—”conviction,” if you prefer— is the Holy Spirit. To be sure, true guilt is a good thing. It helps us judge our behavior against the laws, it allows for restitution, punishment, and making amends. It allows us to pay for what we have done. False guilt involves sin we’ve repented of and asked for God’s forgiveness, but where the devil still pushes us to feel unreedemed. He wants us to see ourselves as the sum of all our bad behaviors and nothing more.

With guilt, we are motivated to confess. Get it out in the open. Find a way to make amends for our actions. Shame, however, wants us to internalize. Stew in our complete badness. Feel horrible about who we’ve become, while forgetting who we now are in Christ. The goal of guilt is ultimately forgiveness. Shame would rather we feel pain and total condemnation. The end result of dealing effectively with guilt is freedom and growth. The point of shame is, quite simply, bondage. Someone who takes ownership of his or her guilt has the potential of giving their body over to God as a living sacrifice. We become open to doing good. Sharing our testimony. Preaching the Good News. On the other hand, shame owns and controls us. The cycle of shame leads to anger, bitterness, resentment, self-hatred, and depression. There is no peace with shame.

The Day Guilt Was Born

Shame and guilt did not exist initially in the Garden of Eden. But no sooner had Eve defied God and taken a bite of the forbidden fruit, these emotions fell over her like a dark shadow. Their silhouettes followed her until her dying day. She would be buried in their cold presence. And as Adam followed in his wife’s footsteps, two more shadows were born. Guilt and Shame are conceived in their rebellion. We are painfully acquainted with them today. We would love to part with them, but they won’t leave us alone. Although these two emotions are related, they aren’t identical. Guilt is typically linked to an event: I did something bad. Guilt says, “I made a mistake; please forgive me.” Shame is tied to a person: I am bad. Shame says, “Please forgive me, I am a mistake.” Guilt is the wound, whereas shame is the scar it leaves. While guilt is seeing what you’ve done, shame is seeing yourself as a complete failure because of what you’ve done. Guilt allows us to look at the sin (the offense). Shame involves focusing on a deep-seated sense of self-denigration.

Shame and False Guilt Create Strongholds

If we continue to ruminate on our past failures, it will wear us down spiritually. Satan takes over, aiming at getting us to see a distortion of who we are—especially who we have become through Christ. Satan wants us to look at our past failures so much that we begin to see ourselves as nothing but failures! He doesn’t want us to see who we truly are. He’d rather keep us thinking about all the bad behavior until all we see when we look in the mirror is a dirty sinner. The complete opposite of who and what we really are in Christ.

In fact, shame is one of those things the Bible speaks of as an imagination that must be cast down. 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” An imagination is an image in your mind that is inaccurate. If you see yourself as a failure, when you’re actually a washed-in-the-blood child of God, you’ve fallen victim to an imagination that must be dealt with.

Shame is very destructive to relationships—especially with God. There is a good reason Satan wants us to feel like failures and dirty sinners who cannot be redeemed. Feeling that way keeps us from confidently approaching God’s throne and having an intimate relationship with Him. Scripture tells us that God wants us to draw near to Him with a clean conscience that has been freed from dead works. We’re not expected to forget the wrongs we’ve done, especially if such behavior led to dire consequences, such as broken hearts and destruction of relationships. Hebrews 9:14 says, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God” (NIV). Timothy speaks of this “pure conscience” (see 2 Timothy 1:3).

Shame and false guilt are based upon deception, which is the opposite of truth. So how are we supposed to worship God in Spirit and truth if there are imaginations hanging around in our minds that are contrary to the truth? But how do we defeat or overcome these bear traps? First, we need to stop dwelling on our past failures. Are you ignoring them? Am I? Not really. When we dwell on them as if they’re not forgiven and forgotten by God, we are ignoring the lie that our sin has not been adequately dealt with and washed away. In other words, we are actually meditating on ghosts! Sins that no longer exist. Micah 7:19 tells us, “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (NIV).

We must deal with our shame by reminding ourselves of how God has dealt with our guilt.

Disassociate, Don’t Disavow

Why do you think God wants us to be new creations? Because He wants us to no longer be in bondage to our past. We’re to disassociate ourselves with the people, places, and things that were a part of our sinful past. Paul succinctly writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV). Psalm 103:12 says, “…as far as the east is from the west, so far he has removed our transgressions from us.” Not only are we to accept that our sins are forgiven, we need to leave them there and press forward toward the things God has for us. Philippians 3:13b-14 says, “…forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (NIV).  God has been merciful toward our unrighteousness, and says “…their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

Coming from a past history of active addiction, and involvement in 12-step programs, I can’t help but refer to the following words contained in the Ninth Step Promises: “We don’t regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.” This is especially applicable in recovery. I recall hearing from an old timer at a meeting years ago, “…we have to get to the point where we stop seeing our past as a liability and start seeing it as an asset.” Whether we’re working with others in recovery or sharing our testimony with unbelievers, our past experiences—good or bad—are tools, indeed assets, for helping others. This is a practical application of the doctrinal concept that we have become a new creation through our faith in Christ Jesus.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Because we were designed by God to feel guilt, we all should have the capacity for it. But sometimes we are not clear about its underlying motivation. If your fear of getting caught is greater than your desire to heal your relationships, then you are suffering from an unhealthy guilt and it is likely to be with you for a long time. Trust me, I’ve been there. Shame feels bad as well, but it is different from guilt. Shame is the painful feeling of disconnection from others that comes from feeling defective. You may think you feel bad because of things you have done, but shame is a bad feeling that you have about yourself, and you had that feeling long before you committed any of the things you think caused it.

Guilt and shame are strong emotions that we need to acknowledge and deal with before our relationships will go well. To manage guilt, we must do things differently. Being honest about wrongdoing, repenting of it, and seeking forgiveness are things we can do in response to guilt. To deal with shame, we must actually be different. That is, we must be vulnerable and experience what it is like to share our feelings honestly with others in ways that change us and help us be a better person.

All of us walk around with some degree of shame. We can’t talk ourselves out of it, or even have someone else explain to us why we shouldn’t feel it. No one can be cured of shame, but we all can experience healing. When we are courageous and vulnerable enough to open ourselves up to God’s grace, we will experience what it is like to feel complete acceptance down to our very core. Courage, vulnerability, and acceptance heal shame. And experiencing that with God heals it in the most powerful way.

God forgives you; you must learn to forgive yourself.

 

 

Jesus: Portrait of a Messiah

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I’VE BEEN THINKING A LOT lately about who Jesus truly is, and how He conducted Himself during his ministry. Just think about how much love He has for us and for the Father. Jesus lived to be the Good News we all need. He was committed to doing the will of the Father. In fact, He was the embodiment of God’s love for us. Jesus was forgiving and accepting of everyone He encountered.

A LOOK AT THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

I was reading in Matthew recently and found it rich with information. The synoptic Gospel of Matthew is one of the most quoted books of the Bible. It contains the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. It is in Matthew that Jesus explains the Golden Rule. It famously concludes with the Great Commission: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, the worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'” (Matthew 28:16-20, NIV).

The Gospel of Matthew is especially important, for it is one of the two Gospels originally written by an apostle—John being the other one. It is likely Matthew wrote his gospel in Antioch, which was perhaps an early home of Christianity (85 A.D.). The Book of Acts (essentially a chronicle and exposition on the activities of the early Christian church after Jesus ascended into heaven following His crucifixion) recorded that the followers of Jesus there first called Christians in Antioch (see Acts 11:26).

MY TAKE ON JESUS

I find Jesus to be fascinating, enigmatic, powerful, consistent, straightforward. He was not a diplomat or politician. His agenda was devoid of trying to please everyone. He saw the potential, the good—the redeeming qualities if you will—in everyone He met. He literally oozed unconditional love. He was not tolerating of hypocrites—especially the Pharisees who practiced what I like to call  “conspicuous religious consumption.” They were most concerned with their own public image, and considered themselves to be the only group that understood God. They felt they were holier than others—the word Pharisee is from an Aramaic word meaning “separated.” Jesus saw the heart, not the attire. He clearly saw everyone on the same, equal footing.

Certainly, there were individuals with whom Jesus got angry—like the money changers and the men at the Temple selling animals for sacrifice at an exorbitant profit. I identify quite easily with the types of people Jesus loved, reached out to, ministered to, and healed. Basically, the broken. When moving in the physical realm, God has always had a soft spot for people who are far from perfect. Our weakness is God’s power. He uses the flawed and the troubled to implement His will. He does not look for the perfect; even the not-so-imperfect. God does not call the qualified; rather, He qualifies the called. This is great news! None are perfect. None are without sin.

That was music to my ears. I have often felt I am one of those whom Christ could not save. I have been downtrodden, depressed, resentful, suicidal, mentally ill, and an addict. I am a convicted felon. I’m twice divorced, have had cars repossessed, been evicted, had my children refuse to speak to me. I have a long-standing history of lying, cheating, and stealing. There are so many “failures” in my life that I simply stopped counting. But in the eyes of the Father, I have been made in His image. Jesus loves me and wants me to have an abundant, successful, God-sharing life. Jesus accepts me for who I am, with absolutely no strings attached. He does not play favorites at all, which is miraculous in itself. That fact alone—His undying, unconditional love—may be one of the most supernatural things Jesus did. He didn’t show partiality at all, and neither should we.

BECAUSE HE FIRST LOVED ME

For me, I will love God because He first loved me. I will do my best to obey God because I love God. But if I were unable to accept God’s love, I would be unable to love Him in return, and unlikely to be obedient. The ability to accept God’s unconditional love and unmerited favor is all the fuel we need to obey Him in return. This is what’s at the crux of getting God out of your head and into your heart. Accepting God’s grace and love is something the devil does not want us to do. If we hear, in our “inner ear,” a voice saying we are failures, we are losers, we will never amount to anything. This is the voice of Satan trying to distract us from God’s love. This is not the voice of God. God woos us with kindness and grace and acceptance. We become saints. We partake of sonship through Jesus. Through this, God changes our character with the passion of His love.

Sometimes I wonder if I am doing everything God expects of me. Certainly, I miss the mark. When we look at Matthew 28:16-20, we realize none of us truly measure up. Jesus said to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick. John 14:12 tells us, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (NIV). He said to love those that persecute me. This involves putting our ego in check. Regardless of who He truly was, Jesus did not let this impact His ego or derail his ministry.

Jesus did not mix His ministry (indeed, his theology) with politics. I grew up doing that, which got in the way of the central message of the Gospel. I know that was wrong, and I know that there are a log of people who will not listen to the message of Christ because of believers carrying their own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across.

THE MEASURE OF OUR FAITH

Love is the measure of our faith, the inspiration for our obedience, and the true altitude of our discipleship. By altitude, I mean how high we can go in God. How deep our relationship can be. Love is a distinguishing mark of Christians and something the Lord commanded us to do. John 13:34-35 tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (NIV). This is what we mean by a God kind of love. It is impossible to have this kind of love without accepting Christ. Love and the cross are indivisible.

Jesus said we should love others as God loves us—selflessly, sacrificially, with understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness. Jesus did not come to our world to condemn, and neither should we. But how can we love others if we’re unsure of His love for us personally? When we refer to God’s love, we’re talking about unselfish giving of Himself to us, which brings about blessings in our lives—no matter how unlovable we might be. I don’t know about you, but that makes me extremely happy. I always felt unlovable growing up. I felt I was too bad, too evil, to be loved. God’s love is not just an emotion, decision, or action. Well, in one sense love is a verb. It is something we do, not something we say. Love, of course, is who God is. It says in 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (NIV).

GOD CHOSE US

John 17:24 says, “Jesus prayed, ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (NIV). Let’s compare this verse to Ephesians 1:4-5, which states, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” God loved us and foresaw our adoption into His holy family before He created the earth.

We know Jesus died for us. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV). His death was the ultimate gift to us. What more can a man do than lay down his life for those he loves? On the cross, Jesus emptied Himself for our sake, pouring out His love so that we might be saved. He loved us, then, and He still loves us today—regardless of all our sins, mistakes, or struggles. In fact, He will love us and aid us during all our struggles.

God cares for us. God continually watches over us, providing our needs. He protects and guides us, and answers our prayers. The Lord may not always act within the time frame we expect, but if we’re faithful to wait on Him, He will always come through for us according to His will. The best way to learn about God’s deep concern for His children is to spend time reading the Scriptures and meditating on His Word. If we devote ourselves to the Lord, we will discover that He is always caring for us. What’s unfathomable, God promises to love us unconditionally. No matter what. He will never leave us or forsake us.

Hebrews 13:5b reminds us “…Neither will I leave you, never will I forsake you” (NIV). In verse 6, we’re told, “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?'” If God loved us only sometimes, but not all the time, that would indicate His character, feelings, and attitude are changeable. But the Lord never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Thankfully, neither is His love contingent upon what we do. Whether or not we go to church, witness, pray enough, and never sin—which we know is impossible—will not impact God’s love for us as His children. God’s affection is always the same. You can’t do anything to deserve God’s love, and you can’t do anything to keep Him from loving you. There is no sin too great. No person too depraved. God loves us all and sent His Son to be our ultimate sacrifice.

Remember, the Apostle John tells us that God is love. This may be a difficult truth for the human mind to comprehend. But love is the Lord’s very essence. He is the source from which all true love flows. There are no limitations, no restrictions, and no exceptions. God’s care for us is absolute and genuine, and through creation He has unmistakably declared that love. But in His most powerful proclamation of all, He sent His Son to die for us, so that we could enjoy His loving presence for all of eternity.

THE GOD KIND OF LOVE

What are the attributes of this agape kind of love? Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13. Starting at verse 4, “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (NIV). How important is love? Peterson puts it this way in The Message: If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (vv. 1-7).

The love God has for you and me is far beyond human comprehension. Jesus told us that God loves us as much as He loves Jesus. Think of it! What a staggering and overwhelming truth to comprehend. We need have no fear of someone who loves us unconditionally. We never need to be reluctant to trust God with our entire lives, whatever situation we find ourselves in. God does truly love us. And the most unbelievable part is that He loves us even when we’re being disobedient. He disciplines or corrects us because He loves us. We’re told in the Bible not to be angry when the Lord punishes us. We should not be discouraged when He has to show us where we have gone off the rails. For when He punishes us, it proves that He loves us. We need to let God train us.

We are commanded to love. Jesus said we are to love the Lord our God with our our heart, soul, and mind. That means we have to love Him unconditionally. Even when our lives are falling apart and He seems to be ignoring us. Jesus said loving God was the first or greatest commandment of the new covenant. He said the second-most important thing is to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. If we keep these two commandments we will find it easier to fulfill the other commandments given to us through Moses.

I’ve learned I cannot love in my own strength. Scripture tells us that just as surely as those who are in the flesh (the worldly, carnal person) cannot please God, so in our own strength was cannot love as we should. We can’t demonstrate agape love, God’s unconditional love, through our own efforts. How many times have you resolved to love someone? How often have you tried to manufacture some kind of positive loving emotion to another person for whom you felt nothing? Such as trying to “love” your neighbor who gives you nothing but grief and heartache. It’s impossible, isn’t it? In your own strength, it is not possible to love as God loves.

Jesus lived out the agape kind of love by being a sacrifice for us. He laid down His life willingly. No man took the life of Jesus. And He did this out of a perfect, undying, unconditional love for us. But one way we can show God we love Him is by keeping His commandments. Jesus said, “The one who loves Me will be loved by the Father.” Of course, the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and soul.

And we have the example of Jesus to follow.

 

 

 

 

The Roof

Up here
on the roof,
I am tall,
taller than all,
at the apex:
not of height,
nor of stature;

just here
at the edge
where anything
is possible:
creativity,
destruction,
enlightenment,
apostasy;
whatever I choose
begins up here
at the edge
of heaven and hell

where God waits,
and angels watch;
where birds soar
without awareness
of my struggle,
or my questions,
or my potential,
good or bad;

below, a community
ekes out its
existence,
parading
up and down
the streets
and avenues,
with no inkling
of what comes
next;

life in
pieces, its
very blood spilled
on the macadam
of tomorrow
by the handguns
of a thousand
angry, disenfranchised men,

rudderless,
willing to take
everyone
with them
into the
crevasse where
not even light
can escape.

©2017 Steven Barto

God’s Grace Teaching Us

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-12, NIV).

Man Kneeling

The doctrine of grace is an amazing concept. Grace, of course, means “goodwill,” “loving-kindness,” or “favor.” I love the commentary that grace is God’s “unmerited favor.” This explains not only the helpless, hopeless, sinful condition of mankind and its need for ransom or redemption; it highlights God’s undying, incomprehensible unconditional love. Grace cannot be purchased. It is a free gift of God—albeit not free in the simplest use of the word. It cost God the life of His only begotten Son. It cost Jesus indescribable, excruciating pain, unfathomable emotional distress, rejection, persecution, torture, and death. Taking mankind’s sin on at the time of crucifixion cost Jesus to be cut off by God. At that instant, Jesus became the sin of the world. God had to turn His face away. Jesus, feeling the abandonment of the Father, cried out, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?” (which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46, NIV).

GOD’S GRACE OFFERS US SALVATION AND JUSTIFICATION

Christian scholars and writers have long considered the connection between grace and justification. “…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24, NIV). Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (NIV). It amounts to a full pardon of our sins to the point where God remembers our offenses no more. Hebrews 8:12 says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (NIV). Psalm 103:11-12 tells us, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (NIV). We’re at a loss to comprehend this degree of grace. There is no human equivalent. We lack the capacity for this level of forgiveness and love.

Romans 5:1-2 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (NIV). Verse 2 clearly states that we have access by faith into this grace. Paul explains in Ephesians 1:5-6 (speaking to non-Jews), that we all have been granted sonship through Jesus Christ “…in accordance with his pleasure and will” (NIV). In the original Greek, the word for “granted sonship” is charitoo, which means “highly favored.” The Greek wording can also signify “the favor of God.”

God’s grace is woven throughout Paul’s writings. Hiebert (1979) writes, “Paul could not think of Christian truth and conduct apart from God’s grace” (vol. 11, p. 439). Guthrie (1990), wrote, “The expression, the grace of God, may fairly be said to be the key word of Paul’s theology…. He cannot think of Christian salvation apart from the grace of God…” (p. 198) [Italics added].

GOD’S GRACE [ALSO] TEACHES US

The grace of God not only saves the souls of all who believe in his Son; it also works in believers’ lives to teach and instruct them. God’s grace, working through His Word, instructs and shapes our thinking and living. God says that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age. It is the will of God that we turn away from all that is worldly and spiritually compromising. He wants us to walk in godliness, imitating Christ in all we do. God works this into our hearts by His grace.

God’s grace first saves and then trains His people
for godliness and good deeds.

We can actually grow strong in grace. 2 Timothy 2:1 says, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is Christ Jesus” (NIV). God’s grace can help, teach, and empower us. The grace that restores our relationship with God through Jesus is theologically referred to as special grace. This is when God opens the eyes of a sinner and illuminates the truth about himself to that person. It is special in many ways, but the word special refers to its lack of common use by everyone. Saving grace is not experienced by the whole world but only by Christians. Common grace is God’s grace that every human experiences. It does not refer to our restored relationship with God, but rather to the gifts God gives both to the saved and the unsaved—to His church and to the world. Special grace affects us spiritually and common grace affects us physically and materially. All things are from God. No human deserves anything from God. Accordingly, all good things we have are by God’s grace. When God restores our relationship with Him through faith in his Son, this is by special grace. When He gives us all we need, this is by His common grace. But in short, all good things, spiritually and physically, are given to us by grace.

God’s grace helps by empowering us to serve Him. In other words, grace is also the power and ability of God working through us. This is paramount to growing and succeeding as a Christian. Without God’s divine power and ability operating through us, we will never make it to the tops of mountains that He is calling us to climb for Him. We will never be able to reach the goals, the aspirations, and the finish lines that God has in store for us unless we have the power of His Holy Spirit working in us and through us. Too many Christians are trying to reach their goals and aspirations operating out of their own power and strength. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made great in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (NIV).

The word “instructing” means, “child-training.” It includes teaching, but also, correcting and disciplining. It is a process that begins at salvation and continues until we stand before the Lord. Note that grace does not mean, “hang loose and live as sloppily as you please.” Paul succinctly stated, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who died to sin; how can we live in it any longer” (NIV).

Grace trains, disciplines, and instructs us in godly living. When we experience God’s unmerited favor in Jesus Christ, it motivates us to want to please Him in everything we do. So we open God’s Word. As we read, we begin to realize that there is much in our lives that displeases the Lord, who gave Himself on the cross to save us from His judgment. We are to begin walking on the path that Jesus described as denying ourselves daily, taking up our crosses, and following Him (see Luke 9:23). Grace trains us to live righteously. This refers to a life of integrity and uprightness in our dealings with others. It means conforming to God’s standards of conduct, as revealed in the commandments of His Word.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Most of us don’t really understand the full power and scope of grace. Yes, we know we’re “saved by grace.” That’s easy. Well, maybe simpler. We don’t even begin to understand the real power it can release in our lives. The Bible gives us many examples of the power of grace available to the early Church in Jerusalem. That same power is available to anyone who’s ever sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Thank God, that means you and I qualify! Whenever we’re beleaguered by Satan, we need to follow the example of the early Christians.

Christianity teaches that what we deserve is death with no hope of resurrection. While everyone desperately needs it, grace is not about us. Grace is fundamentally a word about God.

Remember, God’s grace is free and it is unmerited.

References

Guthrie, D. (1990). Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Pastoral Epistles, revised ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press.

Hiebert, D. (1979). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press.