“I’m Not Who I Wanna Be!”

The greatest revolution in our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives. —William James

Girl in Meadow Sunset Contemplating

KNOWING YOURSELF IS ONE OF the greatest feelings. It has a deep meaning. Frankly, it’s how you enable yourself to move forward. When you are able to clearly and honestly see who you are deep down, you are better equipped to begin working on personal growth. There simply is no growth without honesty. I learned this lesson the hard way—which is an understatement. It took me over four decades to discover who I had become, who Jesus sees me to be, and what to do about it.

Too many Christians today suffer from an identity crisis. Whenever we forget who we are in Christ, we create a void in our spirit that nothing can satisfy, although not for lack of trying—overeating, sex, booze, drugs, gambling, excess shopping, pornography, working eighteen hours a day, whatever. Of course, what’s critical is this: How we see ourselves is our identity. Identity is strongly linked to self-image and self-esteem.

WHO DOES CULTURE SAY WE ARE?

Culture tries to create us as they see fit. Enculturation begins with our first primary caregivers and continues through academia and religious or other “life-defining” practices. Culture influences identity. We are both individuals and members of the human family. Clyde Kluckhohn (1954) wrote “culture is to society what memory is to individuals.” Webster’s dictionary defines culture as “…the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” It also includes values and beliefs of a particular group. Because we’re social beings—according to Genesis 2:18, God believed man should not be alone—the cultural influences we’re subjected to play a large role in the development of our identity.

Culture provides a lens through which we view and interpret the world. This is typically called a worldview. It’s been said that culture suggests the way a group of people may appear to an anthropologist; worldview suggests how the universe appears to the group. Accordingly, worldview helps generate our specific experiences. Everyone has a worldview—a window through which he or she views the world, framed by the assumptions and beliefs that color what he or she sees. The basic role of a worldview is to present the relationship of the human mind to the riddle of the world and life. Nietzsche viewed every worldview as a product of time, place, and culture.

Identity is not determined by biology; rather, it is informed by social and environmental influences. For example, language is a large part of who we are—including how and what we speak—is determined from birth by environment and social culture. It is further influenced by academics. Somewhere, in the mix of all this, culture gives us a label for the group to which we each belong. We all “see” the same world, but it will be understood differently. Our “glasses” (worldview) do not shape reality, nor do they ensure a correct perception, but they do determine how we interpret and explain life and the world.

WHO DOES PSYCHOLOGY SAY WE ARE?

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Identity is largely concerned with the question Who am I? Identity relates to our basic values that dictate the choices we make (e.g., relationships, career, academic interests). These choices reflect who we are and what we value. Some believe identity may be acquired—at least in part—indirectly from parents, peers, and other role models. Children come to define themselves in terms of how they think their parents see them. If their mother or father sees them as worthless, they will come to define themselves as worthless. People who perceive themselves as likable probably heard more positive than negative statements.

Standard elements of the word personality include:

  • the state of being a person
  • the characteristics and qualities that form a person’s distinctive character
  • the sum of all the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of a person

Essentially, personality is everything about us that makes us what we are—a unique individual who is different, in large and small ways, from everybody else. Our personality is one of our most important assets. It helps shape our experiences. Personality type can limit or expand our options and choices in life, and can even prevent us from sharing certain experiences or keep us from taking full advantage of them. Accordingly, sometimes personality can vary with the situation. Psychologists and sociologists assume that identity formation is a matter of “finding oneself” by matching one’s talents and potential with available social roles.

WHO DOES PAUL SAY WE ARE IN CHRIST?

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According to Ephesians 1, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing; we have been chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, grace-lavished, and unconditionally loved and accepted. We are pure, blameless and forgiven. We have received the hope of spending eternity with God. When we are in Christ, these aspects of our identity can never be altered by what we do.

For Paul, union with Jesus is summed up in the short phrase he uses over 200 times in his epistles: in Christ (and other variations of same). This wording is said to have originated with Paul. C.K. Barrett, British biblical scholar and Methodist minister known for such books as The Gospel of Saint John and A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, believed we cannot define the term “in Christ” exactly because Paul does not elucidate or explain the how—i.e. the mechanism—of such a union suggested by the phrase. So, what does the phrase mean?

One of the richest passages about identity in the Bible is found in Ephesians 1:3-14. In this passage, Paul addresses the church in Ephesus, explaining the new identity given to a person when they are in Christ. Unfortunately, often a gap exists between intellectually knowing these truths about who God says we are and living them out. This can be hindered by how we see ourselves, our life experiences, and the ways we allow the world to define us. In order to live out the fullness of our new identity in Christ, we must determine what is hindering us from seeing ourselves as He sees us. Many times, a false belief has wedged itself between how God defines us and seeing ourselves in the same light.

Jesus With Open Arms

For example, the opposite of “pure and blameless” would be “impure, stained or guilty.” Perhaps a life experience has caused you to feel impure, so you believe God sees you this way. You then create and live out of an identity based on your beliefs, which are  contrary to how God sees you. In order to fight against these false beliefs, we must discover the exact belief we are allowing to form our identity.

When reflecting on Ephesians 1, I see some false beliefs we may live out:

  • rejected instead of accepted,
  • in bondage instead of redeemed,
  • under the law instead of covered by grace,
  • feeling orphaned instead of adopted

Instead, we need to focus on who we are and what we have in Christ:

  • spiritually blessed
  • redeemed
  • sealed
  • grace through faith
  • one in Christ
  • joint heirs with Christ
  • access to the Father
  • fellow citizens of heaven
  • boldness
  • new life
  • access to the whole armor of God

Just saying “I’m in Christ” does not make it so. What must come first is the means by which we can be one with the Messiah. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV) [italics mine]. The mechanism is right there. Christ had to become sin for us, thereby washing us white as snow, before we could become the righteousness of God and be one with Jesus. Paul tells us in Romans 3:22-24, “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) [italics mine].

Romans 6:11 says, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (NIV) [italics mine]. Further, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:2). Paul addresses our identity in Christ in his Epistle to the Ephesians. In 1:12, he writes, “…in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory” (NIV). Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:6 that He raised us up together with Him by our virtue of being in Christ. Ultimately, we press on to win the prize to which God the Father is calling us heavenward in Christ (Philippians 3:14). John says, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (NKJV).

WHO DOES GOD SAY WE ARE?

God says we are valuable. We are created in His image (Genesis 2:7) and tasked with carrying that image like a torch to light the world. We are woven into the tapestry of all He has created. We’re crowned with His glory and honor as the pinnacle and last act of the six days of Creation.

Perhaps the best way God sees us is redeemed. The truth we have to remind ourselves every day is the fight has already been won. We don’t need to try to fix ourselves. No self-effort will ever save us. We cannot make up for past struggles and efforts. We must remember that grace is already ours. When we die to our old self, we live with Christ in God. The Father no longer sees our sins. When He looks at us, he sees the righteousness of Christ.

We have all this through Jesus Christ.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25, NIV).

 

Is Your Faith Based on Circumstances?

“Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Matthew Henry tells us in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, “A truly religious life is a life of constant joy” (p. 1175). Paul was a living example of this. While under house arrest, he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Although he was living at home, he was chained to a Roman guard around the clock and was not able to go anywhere. He knew his trial was likely years away. Given that God had called him to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, he was stuck in Rome unable to plant new churches or visit with those he was nurturing by letter. Certainly, he had every right to complain. He’d been beaten, shipwrecked, and persecuted for Jesus. Instead, his letter to the church at Philippi was filled with rejoicing. He wrote, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel” (Philippians 1:12, NIV).

Eugene Peterson puts an amazing focus on Philippians 1. In essence, Paul is saying, “I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah” (v. 12-14, MSG).

Paul essentially said his sufferings for Christ had furthered the Gospel by provoking others to zeal for Him. Paul focused on preaching the Gospel no matter the circumstances in which he found himself. He wanted nothing more than to worship God in Spirit, rejoice in Christ, deny his flesh, forge ahead toward the prize, looking only toward the Savior, striving to be an example for others. He added, “As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other” (v. 22-26, MSG).

TRUST REQUIRES PATIENCE

Trusting God always requires patience, because God doesn’t work on our timetable. Patience allows us to enjoy life while we wait. No doubt this is a difficult proposition. We are, after all, only human. We measure success and failure, happiness and disappointment, in terms of emotion first and then in actual results. When we feel bad, especially when we really, truly hurt, we want a way out right away. For many, including me, that can include drugs and alcohol. I ran from hurt and pain for decades. I simply had no concept of or capacity for patience.

Quite often the reason God is requiring us to wait is simply that He is using our difficulty to work patience in us. Learning to be patient is important enough to God’s plan—for us and for those whom we will touch with our lives—that I believe he ordains everything we go through. He is not going to short-change His plans by giving us what we want the second we want it. Sadly, however, the desire for instant gratification causes many people to make snap decisions. Some get high or drunk. Some spend beyond their means. Others have sex without thinking. Some marry someone who is wrong for them because they’re not willing to wait for the right someone. The false belief that we should have instant gratification is at the root of our unwillingness to suffer through the bad times.

It’s not easy being a Christian in today’s pluralistic society where moral relativism, hatred, distrust, bigotry, and fear run rampant. There seems to be an increasing tension between Christians and non-believers. When we focus on others rather than Jesus, we see them as enemies instead of children of God worthy of our love and respect. Admittedly, culture has taken a dramatic shift recently. Religion is no longer seen as a social good. Instead, it is considered an old, awkward, worldview that is no longer relevant.

GOD’S VOICE IN OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

As Christians, we all want to hear from God. I’ve often dropped to my knees and begged Him to say something—anything—as long as it was aloud. I wanted to know if He was there. Was He listening to me at all? Did He care about what was happening to me? What did He want me to do? It is even more challenging to determine what God is not saying in any given situation. He spoke to the prophets in the Old Testament. He appeared before non-believers. He sent angels. He told people what to do. He even told them what not to do. And He often accompanied these directives with promises—blessings and curses. He was often extremely clear about His wishes.

Today, we tend to expect the grandiose voice of God—and sometimes God speaks that way. More often, though, His voice comes through more subtly. God often speaks to us through the quiet moments, through other people, and through life’s circumstances. It can be difficult to distinguish His voice from the chaos of our situation. In order to decipher what God is saying, it is important to know and understand His Word. Spending time in the Scriptures will help us hear His voice. He will never contradict Himself. He will never speak to us through our circumstances in a manner that goes against His written Word. The Bible must be our yard stick. And when He puts others in our path to guide us, we need to distinguish between those who practice seeking the heart of God from those whose ambition is to control and manipulate others.

It is extremely important to remember that one incident is not necessarily indicative of God’s intent for our entire life. One swallow does not a summer make. (Google it!) Never make a life-changing decision on one event or one set of circumstances because God may or may not be speaking through this particular event. We need to look over the span of months and years. It is critical that we ask ourselves, Where is God leading me? He chose us and ordained our lives even before we were formed in the womb. I met a recovered addict last summer while serving as on-site manager for a motel. He was working as an itinerant electrician at a new gas-fired power plant being built in my area. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” My ears always perk up when I hear someone say that! “God says everything you’ve been through from the moment you were born until you met me right now, all the good and the bad, was ordained by Him to help make you into the man He needs you to be in order to fulfill your calling.”

We must never put God in a box. He is much more infinite and all-knowing than we can ever grasp. No matter what the dire, dreary circumstance, God can turn each into a hopeful future. He can reverse, restore, revive, and renew. We need only look for His plans that are already in motion right now, even in the midst of our difficult time. Trust Him. He can take any circumstance and use it for our good and His glory.

Is Faith Irrational?

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The truth about God is too important not to be seriously investigated and honestly and fairly discussed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for friendly conversations about religion to escalate into shouting matches—and this helps no one. Belief and unbelief are two sides to the same coin. The debate over faith and spirituality is here to stay. However, it does no good to vilify the other side. If any real ground is to be reached, we need to change the tone of this conversation.

WHY ALL THIS HOSTILITY AGAINST RELIGION?

It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of books on atheism and apologetics becoming New York Times best-sellers would have been hard to imagine. So what happened? Why are people reading books bashing God and ridiculing the faithful, or proffering a defense of the Gospel? Of course, that’s a rather complex question.

Lower Manhattan Just After Towers Fell

First, we live in a much different world following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The events of that horrific day, when 2,996 people were murdered and more than 6,000 were injured, are burned into our collective memory. We all had front-row seats to religious fanaticism run amok. Until that day, such zealotry had always been going on “somewhere else” in the world. It is impossible to overstate how drastically the events of 9/11 changed our world.

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In the days that followed, the cultural conversation turned to the role and value of religion in the public square and throughout the globe. Such conversations are certainly legitimate and appropriate and, if conducted properly, can be quite healthy. But events like 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, or the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016, helped create the cultural context in which the hyper-aggressive claims of today’s militant atheists could actually be entertained by a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

Second, there is a growing undercurrent of unbelief in America. A Newsweek cover story written by John Meacham, published on April 16, 2009, titles “The End of Christian America,” reported that “the number of Americans who claim no religious belief or affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.” Why is this? While sociologists have more than enough polling data to analyze, I think Timothy Keller offers a plausible explanation in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism:

Three generations ago, most people inherited rather than chose their religious faith. The great majority of people belonged to one of the historic mainline Protestant churches or the Roman Catholic Church. Today, however, the now-dubbed “old-line” Protestant churches of cultural, inherited faith are aging and losing members rapidly. People are opting instead for a non-religious life, for non-institutional personally constructed spirituality, or for orthodox, high-commitment religious groups that expect members to have a conversion experience. Therefore the population is paradoxically growing both more religious and less religious at once.

This post 9/11 rejection of God and religion has its roots in pluralism and secularization. It seems a growing number of people—on both sides of the God question—are no longer content to “play church.” It is likely many see “religion” as a training ground for extremism, dogma, elitism, and narrow-mindedness. Either what people believe is true and they are going to attempt to live out their faith in all areas of their life, or it’s false and people shouldn’t waste their time going through the motions of their childhood faith if belief makes no difference whatever.

So these two factors have generated a cultural conversation about faith and God in the 21st century. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for those who attempt to share the Gospel. In addition, the events of 9/11 and after also created room in culture for militant atheists whose advocates tell anyone who’ll listen that if we get rid of religion, we can free ourselves from what they call childish nonsense. Atheism, of course, is not new. It’s been with us for quite a long time. The media fueled atheism, starting perhaps with the April 8, 1966 cover story of Time magazine, “Is God Dead?” Friedrich Nietzsche infamously said Gott ist tot God is dead) in his 1882 collection titled “The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding.”

What is new, however, is the biting and powerful rhetoric, as well as the cultural visibility, of these so-called militant atheist, the likes of which include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Nye. Naturally, their visibility has increased secondary to the explosion of the Internet, blogs, and 24/7 media coverage of every imaginable topic. The more controversial and polarizing, the better. Hoping that something hits the mark, these militant atheists tend to throw everything at people. They appeal primarily to the emotions, lacking any evidence regarding the non-existence of God. Granted, it’s impossible to prove a negative. But these individuals skillfully dodge the concept of proof and instead use sarcasm and innuendo to rattle their theist counterparts and paint religion—especially Christianity—as delusional.

SO, IS FAITH IRRATIONAL?

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A distinct feature of the rhetoric being espoused by the militant atheists today is their belief that religion is blind, irrational, and, well, just plain stupid. This is evident in the title of Richard Dawkins’ seminal work: The God Delusion. His intent is clear—those who believe in God are fools who have been brainwashed by their parents and ancestors into believing something absurd. Dawkins thinks religious people are deluded. I find myself asking, What could possibly cause Dawkins and others like him to be so adamantly against religion? Why resort to attacking fellow citizens simply because they believe in God? A major reason is because Dawkins has decided religious belief is not based in evidence. He said, “In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence.”  In other words, he believes religious faith is blind but in other disciplines—especially science—we demand physical proof for what we believe. Dawkins concludes that religion is a “nonsensical enterprise” that “poisons everything.”

Dawkins’ definition of a “delusion” is “a persistent false belief in the face of strong contradictory evidence.” Now wait just a minute! Isn’t it nearly impossible to prove a negative? What is this strong contradictory evidence? Daniel Dennett—an American philosopher, writer, cognitive scientist, atheist, and secularist—claims that Christians are addicted to their blind faith. According to militant atheist Sam Harris, “Faith is generally nothing more than the permission religious people give one another to believe things strongly without evidence.” Harris said, “Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.”

Doubting Thomas

Dawkins often cites the story of doubting Thomas as proof that Christianity requires blind faith. When the other disciples reported that they had seen the risen Christ, Thomas refused to believe until he could see the nail marks and put his hands where the nails had been and into Jesus’ side where He had been speared. A week later, Jesus showed up and gave Thomas the evidence he demanded. Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29, NIV). True to form, Dawkins says this Scripture passage proves that Christianity opposes reason. He adds, “Thomas demanded [physical] evidence… the other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are help up to us as worthy of imitation.”

BIBLICAL FAITH

The fact that some Christians may have so-called “blind faith” is not the same as Christianity itself valuing blind faith and irrationality. Frankly, the Bible does not tell us to irrationally believe something in the face of reliable physical evidence to the contrary. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (NIV). Eugene Peterson, in his translation of Hebrews 11:1, writes, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see” (MSG) [Emphasis added]. To me, this wonderfully written paraphrase shows that Christianity does not require blind faith in face of scientific evidence to the contrary. Hebrews 11 (the “faith” chapter) explains trust in God.

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Many individuals—believers, non-believers, and agnostics alike—have a gross misunderstanding of what constitutes faith. Faith is not merely a manner by which we “fill in the gaps” in the absence of, or in the face of, real, tangible, evidence. Carl Sagan, for example, once said, “Faith is believing in something in the absence of evidence.” This is a rather narrow definition. Let’s take a closer look at the word substance. It comes from the Greek word hupostasis, meaning “a placing or setting under, a substructure or foundation.” This word can also be translated as “confidence.” The Greek word for evidence, elengchos, means “that by which a thing is proved or tested; conviction.”

Biblical faith comes from careful observation and the weighing of all available evidence. Faith, therefore, is dynamic rather than static. The militant atheists like to lump all religions together and dismiss them with sweeping generalizations. But Christianity is unique in valuing the role of the mind which includes the proper use of reasoning and argumentation. In fact 1 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…” (NIV). The King James Bible uses this same terminology: the substance of things hoped for. Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. God said to Israel, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18, NKJV).

EVERYONE HAS FAITH!

When people hear the word faith, they typically think of religion. No doubt religious people have faith in God. Christians have faith in the Word and many unseen things such as heaven, angels, and the spirit. The point that’s often passed over is that Christians are not the only ones who have faith—everyone does. Everyone has faith in something, including Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. If you don’t have faith, you wouldn’t eat, leave your house, get in an airplane, or go to the fiftieth floor of a skyscraper in an elevator car.

The philosophical revolution over the past few decades has lead to the strengthening of the traditional arguments for God’s existence with new insights and evidence. In their writings, militant atheists hardly interact with these arguments, and, until recently, they have refused to engage leading Christian thinkers in public. As part of my class on World Views at Colorado Christian University, I watched a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and the late Christopher Hitchens. I was shocked by Hitchens’ vilification of Christianity and the vitriolic and mean-spirited comments he threw at D’Souza in an attempt to throw his opponent off his game.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Faulty views of Christianity and its followers are not countered solely by good arguments, but also through relationships. The apostle Paul spoke of imparting not only the truth of the Gospel, but also his very own life. We typically refer to this as our “witness.” Perhaps Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens simply haven’t gotten to know thoughtful and intelligent Christians who value the role of evidence and reason. In other words, believers who grasp the importance of 1 Peter 3:15.

If the human condition limits our ability to know what is true, how do we determine what to believe? It’s been said that we have no criterion for truth—only the means to recognize error. In other words, our knowledge is finite but our ignorance is infinite. Philosophy has long recognized this fact and uses dialectics to assist in our quest to understand what is true. This process involves repeated and thorough criticism of our assumptions. After all, our Christian worldview is more inherited than undertaken by us. Of course, most atheists are fond of stating that faith is defined as believing without evidence. This is actually a faith that mirrors Hebrews 11:1. Even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of law-like order in nature and throughout the universe that is at least comprehensible to Christians.

 

Salvation By Grace Through Faith

The doctrine of soteriology (salvation) is one of the most precious doctrines in all the Word of God. At the same time, it is one of the most debated and misunderstood doctrines.

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The Independent Fundamental Churches of America adopted the following edict relative to salvation: “We believe that salvation is the gift of God brought to man by grace and received by personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, whose precious blood was shed on Calvary for the forgiveness of our sins (Ephesians 2:8-10; John 1:12; Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18, 19).” Constitution of IFCA International, Article IV, Section 1, Paragraph 6.

Faith That Does Not Save

Religion teaches that we try to please God through our own efforts. We need to “earn it.” Some individuals profess faith in Christ but have failed to trust in the person and work of Christ alone. This kind of faith will show no evidence of spiritual life. A person must be prepared to believe in Christ. He must be aware of his need of salvation as was the jailer at Philippi (Acts 16:30). He must be conscious of his hopeless condition apart from God and the sinfulness that has caused this estrangement (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10, 11, 18, 23; Ephesians 2:12). He must also have had presented to him information about the death of Christ and His resurrection and the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice in dealing with his sin (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

True salvation requires the work of God. An unsaved man, who is spiritually dead, must be enabled by the Spirit of God to believe. This involves the convicting work of the Spirit of God concerning sin and unbelief, God’s righteousness which can be bestowed on the individual, and that Christ died for the sins of the world (John 16:7-11; 1 John 2:1-2). The unsaved person must receive grace and enablement from God to believe as stated in Ephesians 2:8-10, “Saving is all His idea, and all His work. All we do is trust Him enough to let Him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish. We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing. No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join Him in the work He does, the good work He has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing” (MSG).

In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul does not identify people without Christ as unfulfilled or incomplete; he describes them as dead. Their spirits were dead because they had broken their relationship with the source of life itself: God. We are not saved by our good works, but we are saved for good works. Our salvation, and our ability to do good works, is 100% God, not 99% God and 1% us. Prior to our salvation, we were spiritually dead—unable to do any good work sufficient enough to assure our salvation. God made each of us unique. We each have a specific calling or capacity to participate in the redemption and restoration of the entirety of creation. The greatest miracle—aside from the resurrection which makes all other miracles possible—is the changed life.

Definition of Faith

Saving faith consists of two indispensable elements. First, there’s the intellectual element—an awareness of the facts of the Gospel, particularly about Christ’s sacrificial death for sins and His physical resurrection, and a persuasion that these facts are true (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Second, there is the volitional element—a total personal reliance upon Christ and the power inherent in His death to provide forgiveness of sins and everlasting life (John 3:16; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 16:31; Romans 1:16; 3:21-26). This is a matter of will; of wanting to choose Christ.

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The absence of either of these elements indicates that the seeker’s faith is not of a quality that leads to salvation. The intellectual apprehension of orthodox doctrine alone will avail nothing (James 2:19). A volitional act of faith in the wrong object (e.g., John 2:23-24; 6:26-27; 8:31, 44) is useless. To save, faith must be directed toward the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22). Some suitable expressions equivalent to the reliance on Christ that brings salvation include “believe in,” “trust in,” and “depend on.” Other terminology that may be misleading in representing this relationship include “submit to,” “yield to,” “dedicate [oneself] to,” and “make Jesus Lord of one’s life.” These are better reserved for a stage of sanctification that usually comes subsequent to saving faith. Two additional phrases, “make a commitment to” and “become a disciple of,” are ambiguous because they could or could not refer to reliance on Christ, depending on how they are defined. “Repent” is not a suitable way to describe saving faith, because it only partially represents what it is to rely on Christ.

Responsibility For Faith

The exercise of saving faith is the responsibility of the sinner in need of salvation. For the one coming to Christ, saving faith is uncomplicated (Acts 16:31). He decides to put his eternal well-being into the hands of Christ as his Savior. Subsequent to regeneration, he has a growing awareness of the far-reaching effects of what he has done, but this fuller grasp of the implications of saving faith is not a condition for salvation. The responsibility for the choice is wholly his. At the time of or subsequent to regeneration, he realizes that the totality of the salvation process is a gift of God, including the grace of God and his own choice to believe (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is something for which he himself can take no credit.

Implications of Faith

Faith that is saving faith carries with it certain implications, characteristics if you will, which a new believer might not be conscious of at the point of initial trust in Christ. The one under conviction is persuaded that the finished work of Christ is sufficient and that nothing else is needed. At the time of his decision, he may be so overwhelmed with his dependence on Christ that the implications of such dependence are not his primary focus of attention.

The absence of the following implications may indicate that his dependence is not on Christ alone:

  1. Christ is God and consequently sovereign Lord over all things and as such is the object of saving faith (Acts 16:31; Romans 10:9; Hebrews 1:8). Few people at the moment of salvation understand fully the implications of Christ’s sovereignty for their own lives well enough to comply with the exhortation of Romans 12:1-2.
  2. Obedience to the command of the Gospel to believe in Christ (Romans 1:5; 10:16) is another way of looking at saving faith, but beyond that initial obedience is implied an absence of rebellion against what Christ stands for (John 3:36). One can hardly place his full trust in Christ while harboring enmity against Him or having a predisposition to oppose Him.
  3. Repentance is a change of mind toward sin, self, and the Savior (Acts 2:38; 17:30; 1 Thessalonians 1:9). A person can hardly seek forgiveness for something toward which he has no aversion (Acts 2:36; 11:18; 20:21; 26:20; 1 Peter 2:24).

Results of Faith

GOOD WORKS

At the time of saving faith, a believer is regenerated by the Spirit (Titus 3:5), indwelt by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), sealed by the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and baptized by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). Always associated with saving faith is the impartation to the believer of a new nature (Romans 6:5-7; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:9-10) which displays its presence through good works (1 Corinthians 4:5; James 2:18, 21-26). Good works may not always be immediately discernible by man, but are an inevitable consequence of the new birth which occurs in conjunction with saving faith (John 3:3, 5; Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-12, 14; 3:8; 1 Peter 1:3, 23). Salvation is in no way contingent on good works.

Faith in Christ which does not result in “good works” (Ephesians 2:9-10) is not saving faith, but is actually dead faith (James 2:17, 20, 26). The missing element in such faith may be intellectual, a failure to grasp or accept the truthfulness of the facts of the Gospel, or it may be volitional, a failure to trust Christ wholly for forgiveness of sins. Failure to trust Christ completely may be traceable to attempts to accumulate merit through the performance of human works by attempting to add to the finished work of Christ (Romans 4:5; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 2:16; 2 Timothy 1:9).

SANCTIFICATION

Sanctification in the experience of the believer is the logical continuation of saving faith, namely:

  1. The believer is expected to submit to the lordship of Christ over all things in his life (Romans 6:11-13; 12:1-2).
  2. The implied obedience to Christ is expected to become an active obedience to Christ’s explicit commands (James 4:7-10; 1 John 2:3-10).
  3. The implied repentance is expected to become explicit, resulting in a purging of sinful behavior (1 Corinthians 5:7; 6:9-10, 18; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 1 Peter 4:15-16).

The lack of such progress in sanctification is characteristic of a carnal Christian (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). God may tolerate this lack of response to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit for a time, but will eventually bring chastening against the delinquent saved person. Such delinquency without correction may serve notice that the person’s profession was not saving faith (1 Corinthians 11:30-32; Titus 1:15-16; Hebrews 12:5-11).

The best method of confronting the carnal or pretending Christian with the insufficiency of his faith is through showing him that God judges sin (Matthew 16:24-28; 1 John 3:6, 9; 5:18). The carnal Christian is faced with the illogical nature of his behavior and forced to reevaluate his spiritual standing; the pretending Christian is faced with the realization that he was never saved.

Assurance of eternal life is provided by God’s written Word (1 John 5:13). Yet, the Scripture brings reminders and tests to cause those who have professed faith in Christ to examine themselves (1 Corinthians 11:28, 15:2; 2 Corinthians 13:5, 2 Peter 1:10). When carnality creeps into the life of a believer, causing him to fail the test of self-examination, he may entertain doubts about whether he has met the biblical criteria of saving faith. The solution for such doubt is for the believer to confess the sin which has broken his fellowship with God (1 John 1:5-10).

For the Sake of Clarification

When it comes to the subject of “salvation and good works,” there are two serious errors that plague the church. One is that of Roman Catholicism, which teaches that in order to gain enough merit for salvation, we must add our “good works” to what Christ did on the cross. Under this view, you can never know for sure whether or not you are saved. Accordingly, you feel compelled to keep adding good works to your account.

The other error, which is more prevalent in evangelical churches, is that good works have no connection whatsoever with salvation. This view teaches that since we are saved through faith by grace alone, a person may believe in Christ as Savior without a life of good works to follow. A person may recite the sinner’s prayer and profess to believe in Jesus Christ as his Savior, yet later profess to be an atheist and live in gross sin. Still, because he professed aloud to believe in Christ, he thinks he will be in heaven simply because of the words he spoke. Salvation requires God raising a sinner from death to life, which ultimately results in a changed life. It severs repentance from saving faith and teaches that saving faith is based solely on believing the facts of the Gospel.

Genuine salvation is entirely of God and inevitably results in a life of good works.

Some biblical scholars have noted a conflict between Paul and James over the matter of justification by faith versus works (compare Romans 3:24, 28 and James 2:18-26). But both men are saying the same thing from different angles to address different issues. Paul attacked the claim of the Pharisees that our good works will commend us to God. He argues that no one can ever be good enough to earn salvation. God justifies guilty sinners through faith in Christ alone. James was attacking the view that saving faith does not necessarily result in good works, but genuine faith produces good works.

That is precisely what Paul is clarifying in Ephesians 2:10. While salvation is entirely of God, so are the good works that follow salvation. God has ordained the entire process. Just as we cannot claim any glory for ourselves in our initial salvation, even so we cannot claim any glory in our subsequent good works. God is behind the entirety of our salvation from start to finish. Thus He gets all the glory.

Concluding Remarks

In closing, there are two main applications to consider. First, make sure that you are a new creation in Christ. Have you truly been saved by His grace through faith in Christ alone? We can only become a Christian by being created. “But we cannot create ourselves,” you may say. This is true, and accordingly we need to quit all pretense about being creators. The further we retreat from self-conceit the better, for it is God who must create us anew. We cannot work for God until God first has done His work of saving grace in us.

Second, if you have been saved, the focus of your life should be, “Lord, what will You have me to do?” Paul asked God that question immediately after his experience on the road to Damascus. The Lord replied, “Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do” (Acts 22:10). God had already prepared Paul’s future ministry long before Paul’s conversion. Paul had to learn God’s plan and walk in it. So do you!

Salvation is not simply a ticket to heaven after death. Rather, it is about being brought from death to life by the love and grace of God, communicated through Jesus Christ. When we are saved into new life, we begin to live now, on this earth, in an altogether different way. At least that’s God’s plan for us. We can also truncate His salvation and continue to live a deathly existence. But God has other things in store for us as His masterpiece. He has good works for us to do, works that contribute to His restoration of the world, works that build up rather than break down, works that fulfill us and make our lives meaningful.

Dover Beach

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Below you will find a poem by the great Victorian “poet of doubt,” Matthew Arnold. The poem recalls a brief moment from Arnold’s honeymoon in 1851. While standing by an open window, overlooking the cliffs of Dover, England, Arnold takes in the shoreline below, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the sea as the tide goes out…

The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling.

At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

Nabeel Qureshi (1983-2017)

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I’ve been presenting a weekly series that follows the book Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, by Nabeel Qureshi. (A new post each Friday.) I had entertained the thought of meeting Qureshi some day. I recently changed the direction of my life and ministry, deciding to earn a master’s degree in Biblical Studies rather than Professional Counseling. As is often the case, when we pray and seek God’s face relative to His plans for us, we find ourselves changing course.

My interest in biblical studies and Christian apologetics began in 2017 after completing a college course called World Views, which did a great job introducing the concept of worldviews, perspectives, culture, and the presuppositions we all have regarding the big questions of life: Who am I? How do I fit in? What is the purpose of my existence? Is God real?

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In order to better prepare me for defending the faith (See 1 Peter 3:15), I did an Internet search on the top books from today’s Christian apologists. It was through this that I found several posts regarding the death of Nabeel Qureshi. Qureshi was a 34-year-old convert from Islam who, after scrutinizing the Qur’an, the hadith (written traditions handed down by Muhammad), and other seminal Islamic texts, and reflecting on the comments of Imams he studied under as a young man, he converted to Christianity.

Qureshi was diagnosed with stomach cancer last summer. He underwent months of aggressive treatment, including the removal of his stomach. He posted a video to Facebook on September 8 that doctors had “given up” on treating his cancer, and had resorted to palliative care. Naturally, Qureshi faced a multitude of questions, including whether he had the faith to be healed. He wondered if there was something he needed to do – did he need to perform in a particular way in order to be walking in faith? He said, “Honestly, I don’t think so. I think God understands where I am right now, and He comes alongside us in that He loves us and gives us the strength.”

Qureshi said God “…reached me through investigations, dreams, and visions and called me to prayer… It was there that I found Jesus. To follow Him means everything to me.” I discovered Qureshi while hard at work on my own walk with Christ. I’d spent so many decades walking in the flesh, then going to God in prayer, asking for forgiveness. What I have come to understand is that I was making a conscious decision to walk in the flesh. I’ve been given the power through the death and resurrection of Jesus to choose walking in the Spirit, but I was treating my salvation as “permission to sin.” After all, I was under grace, right? Truly, I was choosing to count the suffering and death of Jesus as though it meant nothing; that I was too far gone for His death to be a propitiation for my sins. What a slap in the face of my Lord!

Qureshi wrote three fine books before his death. Seeking Allah: Finding Jesus, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, and No God But One: Allah or Jesus. Although he spent many years as a devout Muslim, defending Islam, he finally met his match when he entered into a years-long discussion with David Wood, a fellow student and practicing Christian, on the merits of Islam versus Christianity. Eventually, Qureshi realized his arguments for Islam crumbled under the evidence for Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, as well as the truth of His divinity. Qureshi faced severe disappointment and rejection from his parents after he told them of his conversion.

Qureshi made the announcement of his cancer in August of 2016. He posted the following comment on Facebook:

“This is an announcement that I never expected to make, but God in his infinite and sovereign wisdom has chosen me for this refining, and I pray he will be glorified through my body and my spirit. My family and I have received the news that I had advanced stomach cancer and the prognosis is quite grim.”

Some of you may already know of Qureshi’s passing, but it hit me between the eyes this morning. Regardless of the sadness, pain, and suffering Qureshi endured, he maintained a love and dedication to Christ. My pastor once said to me, relative to my chronic severe low back pain, “Have you ever considered that your pain provides you with the opportunity to understand and share in the pain Christ endured at Calvary?” Now that’s what I call a very provocative question.

Nabeel, my brother in Christ, rest in peace my friend. Thank you for sharing your story with the world. Your work has had a substantial impact on my walk with God, and has helped me to understand His plans for me.

Righteous in His Sight

Our great initial need before God is to be justified. To have God declare us not guilty, and pronounce us righteous in His sight. At first glance this appears to be an impossible situation for man. God, our Judge, is holy by His nature. Because of sin, man is unholy by nature. “But we are all like an unclean thing, and our righteousness is like filthy rags” (See Isaiah 64:6). The consequences of such ungodliness are inevitably universal and appropriately severe. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… for the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23 and 6:23a). The appropriate sentence for all of humanity, in light of their sins against a pure, holy, and eternal God, is death—everlasting separation from God.

The Law of God offers no help, and provides no hope of remedying this dire situation. People are not justified by the works of the Law. Trying your best to measure up to God’s standards never produces a verdict of not guilty. In all of history, Jesus was the only one who could stand up to the scrutiny of God’s Law and receive a declaration of being righteous. Jesus was in all ways tempted as we are, yet without sin (See Hebrews 4:15). No other person could ever perform sufficiently under the Law to achieve a declaration of righteousness. No one is justified by the Law in the sight of God.

Clothed-in-the-Righteousness-of-ChristWe are clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

Vows and pledges of personal improvement offer no hope. Asking others for advice on how to strive more earnestly provides no answer. Only faith supplies the necessary remedy. Man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Trusting in our own best efforts leaves us guilty before God. Trusting in Christ’s perfect work on the cross makes us justified before God. God’s Word tells us, “Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off, having been brought near by the blood of Christ” (See Ephesians 2:12-13).  Verse 16 tells us that we are reconciled to God through the cross. It is a command, not a suggestion. We must remember that we are hopeless!

What Exactly is Righteousness?

Dictionaries define righteousness as behavior that is morally justifiable or right. Such behavior is characterized by accepted standards of morality, justice, virtue, or uprightness. The Bible’s standard of human righteousness is God’s own perfection in every attribute, attitude, behavior, and spoken word. Thus, God’s Law, as given in the Bible, both describe His own character and the very plumb-line by which He  measures human righteousness. Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible says, “The work of religion is to no purpose, unless the heart is in it, and we must worship God in the strength and grace of the Divine Spirit.” It’s important to note that things Paul counted as gain while a Pharisee he counted for loss for Christ.

Righteousness is an attribute of moral purity belonging solely to God. It is He alone who is truly righteous. No one in the world is righteous in the eyes of the Lord except the Christian. We are counted righteous in the eyes of God when we receive Jesus by faith. Paul counted all things but rubbish so that he may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having righteousness of his own—derived from the Law—but that which is through faith in Christ (See Philippians 3:9). Our righteousness is based only on the work done by Jesus on the cross. Through propitiation, the righteousness that was Christ’s is counted to us. This is why when God looks at us, He sees us as righteous. Though we are actually worthy of damnation, we are made blameless.

As Paul notes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and all things have become new.” Without regeneration of his spirit, it is vain for any man to profess a relationship with Christ according to the flesh, while he is unchanged in heart and lifestyle; accordingly, he is dead in trespasses and sins. Let’s take a look at the blessings of the Gospel. It brings us into Christ. Through it, we become a new creation; old things are passed away. The Gospel allows us to put on a new life, which is literally opposite the old life. With the new believer, all things are of God. The true Christian does not permit anything in his life which is ungodly. The cross allows us to be reconciled to God. We become the righteousness of Christ in the eyes of the Father.

Self-Righteousness and Legalism

We are accepted as righteous by God because of what Jesus has done. He was made sin, while we are made righteous. On the cross, Jesus was treated as if He were a sinner, though He was perfectly holy and pure, and we are treated as if we were righteous, though we are defiled and depraved. Put another way, we are treated as though we had entirely fulfilled the Law and had never been exposed to its penalty. Self-righteousness is defined as “confidence in one’s own righteousness, especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” Basically, self-righteousness—which is related to legalism—is the misconception that we can somehow generate within ourselves a holiness that will be acceptable to God. As it is written, there is no one who is righteous on their own merits (See Romans 3:10).

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Jesus had harsh words for the puffed-up self-righteousness of the Jewish leadership. He said, “Everything they do is done for people to see… they love the place of honor at banquets, and the most important seats in they synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by others… [but] those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:5-7; 23:12, NIV). Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Whoa to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27, NIV). This scenario plays out many times between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes.

The Apostle Paul on Self-Righteousness

Paul’s treatment of self-righteousness is no less harsh than that of Jesus. Let’s look at what he had to say in the Book of Romans. “For in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith'” (Romans 1:17). Paul notes in Romans 10:3, “Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the Law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

He addressed this same issue with the Galatians. They were convinced that they had to do certain things to be acceptable to God, including circumcision. Paul astutely called their belief “another gospel,” calling those who advocated it “accursed” (See Galatians 1:8-9). Paul said if righteousness could come from the mere actions of man, then Jesus died “for no purpose” (See Galatians 2:21). He concluded that the Galatians were foolish in their attempt to be perfected by the flesh.

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Concluding Remarks

It is in our sin nature to attempt to behave ourselves into God’s grace. While under the lash of active addiction, I did whatever I could to appear righteous. Admittedly, I was trying to convince friends, family, and employers that I was finally doing things the right way. I was a modern-day Pharisee, bent on presenting a public self-righteousness while privately drinking and drugging. I went to church every Sunday, taught Bible study at two local county prisons, prayed publicly at mealtimes, and attended 12-step meetings. I was driven by pride, fear, and delusions of self-sufficiency.

Most of us are always trying to do something to merit our salvation. The costly freedom of grace, bought for us by the blood of Jesus with no contribution from us, is difficult for our prideful hearts to understand or appreciate. It is far easier to compare ourselves with one another than it is to recognize that we cannot measure up to the standards of a holy God. However, in Christ we can know true righteousness. Through Him, we can know the forgiveness of sin that comes to us through grace and not through works. Because He stood in our place, we benefit from His sinless life and His sin-bearing death on the cross. We are told in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV). Through His sacrifice, we can bring our sin to the cross instead of trying to be good enough to earn appear sacred and holy before God. Only through the cross can we see the grace that covers all our sin and defeat the constant tendency toward self-righteousness in our hearts.