Let’s Go to Theology Class! Week Three

Summary of the third week of class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

AS WE FOCUS ON the lessons covered to date in my initial theology class, we become familiar with how to understand faith as an object onto itself and its place in today’s world. Trevor Hart (1995) calls this type of study faith thinking. Theology is typically undertaken as part of a higher education, whether on the undergraduate, master’s or doctoral level; however, the activity known as “Christian Theology” must become (at least to some degree) an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian. Why do we believe what we believe? How do we think about what we’re thinking about? What weight do we give it in our everyday Christian life?

Admittedly, I am behind in a few lessons from my first theology class. I was hit with an illness that put me behind in week three, and this had an unexpected domino effect. Not to worry. We are going to spend the next few days getting caught up. This will allow me to focus on the first lesson of my second theology class: Systematic Theology, Part 1 by Monday, October 14th.

In the third week of my initial class Major Approaches to Theology we discussed how to effectively read Scripture.

Certainly, reading is a two-way street regardless of its subject matter. When we read Scripture, we interact with information of paramount importance, on multiple levels, each having the potential to change how we see ourselves, our fellow man, and the material world. When reading the Bible, we are embroiled in a written medium that is alive. The New Atheists of today, such as Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), are adamant about one thing: religion poisons everything. In his seminal book God is Not Great he wrote, “God did not make us; we made God.” In attempting to discredit the Bible, Hitchens used the tactic of lumping it in with the Qur’an, Homer’s Iliad, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the red herring of “apocryphal” verses “canon,” and many other inter-related, if not unrelated, textual concerns.

Mesmerized by its reverence, power, emotion, history, and Almighty God, it is only natural for man to hold competing opinions on how best to respond to Scripture We are rightly overcome by a wide range of emotions when reading the Bible: conviction, elation, guilt, fear, boredom, hope, love and the like. Because Scripture is universally applicable, we don’t always know on an individual level how to categorize what we’re reading, let alone how to apply it to our situation. What is worth our immediate attention? What can wait until tomorrow? This is why systematic theology and the “community of believers” are critical to reading, understanding, and applying God’s Word.

Regarding Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who penned such books as Church Dogmatics, Faith Thinking, and The Humanity of God, referred to Mark D.J. Smith’s quote, “The guiding principle of this strategy is Barth’s conviction that the Bible ought to be treated as testimony to God’s self-revelation in history.” Karl Barth believed Scripture must be regarded as God’s own words and nothing less. I recently read an attribute given to Barth. It says that, other than John Calvin, Barth is possibly the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. Barth gave credence to a quote from N.T. Wright: “The tide of literary theory has at last reached the point on the beach where the theologians have been playing, and, having filled their sandcastle moats with water, is now almost in danger of forcing them to retreat, unless they dig deeper and build more strongly.”

Thankfully, grace is a key ingredient in any discussion regarding matters of the Word of God. Barth believed faith to be “awe in presence of the divine incognito.” Further, he understood full-well that faith (the faith each believer holds in his or her heart) cannot hold a candle to the amazing quality of love bestowed upon us through the written Word of God. Scripture is a living thing, yet it is at the same time both amazingly knowable and incomprehensible. Whenever an author writes a book explaining mercy or grace—and when those topics are the essence of the book itself—the writer risks having the subject matter missed entirely. Thankfully, as Christians, we know the “language” of the Bible in our hearts. We see its virtue and we know of its healing properties. Of course, this creates a great atmosphere for systematic theology and honest, open communication among the community of believers in order to best understand and apply the  accuracy and full meaning of Scripture. Barth equates Scripture with God speaking, as did Augustine. For both men, Scripture is in fact Scripture.

Of course, Scripture is not “just another holy book” or a canonical history of the Christian church. Nor, as Christopher Hitchens would claim, a book that can even remotely be categorized with the Qur’an or Homer’s Iliad! It is not merely a volume to be taken down from the shelf and studied. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (RSV). The Interlinear Greek transliteration says the Bible “[is] living… and operative and sharper beyond every sword two-mouthed and passing through as far as division of soul and of spirit, of joints both and of marrow and able to judge of thoughts and intentions of a heart.” (Excuse the cumbersome wording, but it is a literal rendition of the original Greek text.)

The writer of Hebrews adds, “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (4:13, NIV). Eugene Peterson boldly says, “God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what” (4:12-13, MSG). It seems Barth had a rather “controversial” interpretation of Scripture. Although he approached the Bible with an orientation of sola scriptura (Scripture alone), many of his detractors tried to place him in one of the many –ism camps of his time: Platonism, Kantianism, intellectualism, biblicism, pessimism, universalism, or even modernism. Barth had one focus. The authority of the Word of God.

In the interest if keeping the momentum flowing, I intend to present a synopsis of my studies from weeks four and five of my first theology class in the next day or two. Thanks for stopping by. I encourage any comments, questions, or feedback.

For This Very Reason

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

THE APOSTLE PETER CONFIRMS our calling and election as members of the Body of Christ. He tells us that faith unites the weaker believer to Christ in the same manner that it does the stronger and mature believer. Every sincere believer is by his or her faith justified in the sight of God. This is the only means by which each of us are justified. There are no “favorites.” Upon belief in the life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, we all become clothed in the righteousness of Christ. As we grow in Him, our faith must work toward godliness—if you prefer, toward becoming more like Christ.

satan-in-silhouette-e1569902468622.jpg

Satan tries daily to pull us away from Christ, dragging us back to a life of sinfulness and self-centeredness. He attachs detritus and filthiness to our spirits in an attempt to blot out the righteousness of Christ with which we have been clothed. This is theologically impossible, of course, but we must remember to choose right thinking and proper acting every day—walking in a manner that truly demonstrates our repentance and exemplifies the new creation we have become in Christ. If we’ve truly done a 180, as they say, we will be less likely to habitually practice sin and unrighteousness. We cannot willfully choose disobedience. At the very least, when we are pulled back toward our old sinful ways, we must go kicking and screaming, fighting the tide of regression. Truly, we should resist the devil at every turn. When we do, he will flee.

James 4:7-10 says, “So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time. Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field. Hit bottom, and cry your eyes out. The fun and games are over. Get serious, really serious. Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet” [MSG]. I am amazed by the number of Christians who don’t seem to grasp the power we have in Christ to stand against the wiles of Satan. Our authority over the devil is established by the work done by Christ on the cross.

Ephesians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (RSV). The same power that created the universe resides within us. Accordingly, Satan has no true power over us. He cannot force us to sin, nor can he possess us. This is not to say that he cannot oppress us, deceive us, or draw us away from the presence of God. That would be remarkable, but it would fly in the face of God’s primary gift to us other than our very salvation—He has given us free will.

The Building Blocks

As my friend Wally Fry wrote in his blog Truth in Palmyra,

We add these things Peter lists to our faith. Faith is always the starting point; however, it is not the endpoint. Faith never marks the end of our Christian lives, but only the beginning. Another thing to note is that this list Peter provides is not some sequential check-off list of Christian to-dos; it is to illustrate the totality with which we are to apply ourselves to progress in maturity.

Thank you Wally for providing this very profound truth we must all grasp as believers in Jesus Christ. Peter tells us that Jesus has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. He says, “For this very reason add goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. There is a necessary progression here. Each attribute on Peter’s list is fully dependent on the prerequisite quality that precedes the new one. Peter adds, “The more you grow like this, the more you will become productive and useful in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8, NLT).

In his commentary on 2 Peter 1:5-8, Matthew Henry (1997) writes,

Faith work[s] godliness, and produces effects which no other grace in the soul can do. In Christ all fullness dwells, and pardon, peace, grace, and knowledge, and new principles, are thus given through the Holy Spirit. The promises to those who are partakers of the Divine nature, will cause us to inquire whether we are really renewed in the spirit or our minds; let us turn all these promises into prayers for the transforming and purifying grace of the Holy Spirit (p. 1240).

The New Living Translation expresses 2 Peter 1:5-8 thusly: “In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone. The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Please note, the more we grow in this fashion, the more likely we will have genuine unconditional love for everyone. Faith has to be more than mere belief—head knowledge, a mere collection of intellectual concepts or, if you prefer, mere “information.”

Belief, Faith, Behavior

Christian theology consists of three pertinent parts: belief (the cognitive decision-making that underlies our granting intellectual acceptance to its doctrines); faith (the inner state whereby we accept with complete trust and confidence—in our hearts rather than in our heads—the symbolic efficacy of those doctrines, grounded in spiritual apprehension rather than empirical evidence); and outward living or behavior (or, if you prefer, works). Religion provides us with a set of mental, symbolic, practical, and behavioral tools with which to approach the task of interpreting and living in our world according to our individual worldview. Christianity grounds this concept in the deity of Jesus Christ.

Faith Black and White Image

Our faith must be more than mere belief in a set of principles or doctrines. That’s just the jumping-off point. It must ultimately result in action; growth in Christ-likeness (character); and the practice of moral discipline—again, belief, faith, works. James 2:14-17 says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (NIV). This supports the comment that we are saved for our good works. Indeed, the world should be able to recognize Christ in us. Jesus told the disciples “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20, NIV) [italics mine].

Accordingly, a true life of faith leads to knowing God better, an increase in self-control, patient endurance in all things, godliness, and an abiding love of others under all circumstances. First Corinthians 13, often referred to as “the love chapter,” defines God’s unconditional love (from the Greek word agape), which we must all strive to attain:

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 (v. 4-8a, NIV).

We simply cannot express this depth of love without first seeking from God the power it requires to do so.

When Peter wrote for this reason, he was saying “along with this,” or “by the side of your obtaining precious faith.” His remark regarding what is added to our faith amounts to a kind of spiritual arithmetic. According to the Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible, there are seven steps in spiritual mathematics. You should note from this list that we cannot have a virtue without first being well-grounded in its prerequisite:

  1. Add to your faith virtue
  2. Add to virtue knowledge
  3. Add to knowledge temperance [self-control]
  4. Add to temperance patience
  5. Add to patience godliness
  6. Add to godliness brotherly kindness
  7. Add to brotherly kindness love.

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates 2 Peter 1:5-8 this way, “So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books” [emphasis added]. Let me repeat that last sentiment: that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books!

A closer examination of the blessings Peter speaks of in 2 Peter 1:1-4 indicate the following:

  • precious faith (Greek, isotimos), meaning equal honor purchased at a great price
  • righteousness
  • grace
  • peace
  • all things that pertain to life and godliness
  • glory
  • virtue
  • divine nature
  • escape from corruption and lust

Saved For Good Works

Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:10 that we are saved unto good works. Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “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” [emphasis added]. The Greek word for “ordained” Paul uses in verse ten is proetoimazo, which refers to preparing us for good works through regeneration. Remember, we do not possess the capacity under our own power to love unconditionally as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Our only hope is that through regeneration and progressive spiritual maturity we can build upon our virtue one step at a time, thereby increasing our ability—indeed, our likelihood—to begin imitating the agape love of Jesus.

It is Paul’s contention that we become Christians through God’s unmerited favor, not as the result of any effort, ability, intelligent choice, or act of service on our part. We will never be able to do enough good to overcome the pervasive sin nature that dwells in our flesh. We cannot do enough penance to secure the remission of our sins. Accordingly, out of gratitude for this free gift of redemption, we must reach out to serve others with kindness, love, and gentleness—not merely to make ourselves look good. God intends for our salvation to lead to spiritual maturity, which should include acts of service. After all, we are God’s masterpiece. Our salvation is something only God can accomplish, and even then it required the death of His Son Jesus Christ. All of us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, are God’s masterpiece. Whenever we reach out and feed the hungry, clothe those who don’t have adequate clothing, heal the sick, or visit those who are in prison, it is as if we do these things unto Jesus (see Matthew 25:35-40).

For this very reason, we are called onto good works through progressive growth in Christian virtue and love.

References

Dake, Finis. Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible. Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing, Inc., 2008.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997.

Let’s Go to Theology Class! Week Two

Summary of the second week of class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

WE HAVE LEARNED SO far that theology is an attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world. Trevor Hart (1995) calls this exercise faith thinking. Although theology is typically undertaken as part of a higher education endeavor, the activity known as “Christian Theology” should be an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian. Systematic Theology is defined as “an integrating discipline that studies how the church may bear enduring, timely, and truthful witness to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”

This week’s lesson focused on understanding religious faith. In Trevor Hart’s Faith Thinking, he expounds on contemporary approaches to theology through examination of objectivism and relativism, saying these are the only available intellectual options a “theologian can use. The Church Covenant at my home church indicates, “We covenant that we will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but will regularly attend the services of this Church. We will strive for its advance in knowledge, holiness, and fellowship, and sustain its ordinances, discipline and doctrines” (see Hebrews 10:25 for scriptural authority).

Further, the Covenant states that spreading of the Gospel must be built upon the truth, which can only be attained through being reconciled to God and being the very ambassadors through which God may work in the same manner He worked through Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:19-21). In other words our church members are expected to walk carefully in the world, being just in their dealings, faithful in their responsibilities and exemplary in their conduct, as well as understanding [having accurate knowledge of] what the Lord’s will might be. This directive is based upon Ephesians 5:15, 17.

Wolfhart Pannenberg

Clearly, faith evaluated through an objective view must focus on reason, purpose, and the individual self. This stems from the basic approach of objectivism as relating to or being comprised of only that which can be observed, negating the importance (if not existence) of that which cannot be observed. According to Trevor Hart, this is considered “public” versus “private” theology. This is specific to the manner in which we discuss or hold our underlying belief and should not to be interpreted as being double-minded or hypocritical.

Pannenberg believes the theologian’s first responsibility is to aid people in experiencing as reality whatever they are expected to build upon as their true theology or faith. He says this must be accomplished prior to the theologian asking individuals to take an initial step of faith. The basic platform on which such faith is built must be firm, thereby promoting confidence in the platform. Hart indicates some individuals will step out further in faith than others. Regardless, the Christian theologian cannot expect a potential believer (skepticism often hindering absolute conviction) to take that first step without his giving them a “good reason for doing so and pointing to something firm to place their foot on.”

What is this objective approach to faith? It’s been said that in order for faith to operate properly—that is, to provide an adequate window through which we can contemplate truth—we must grasp a meaning in our soul which is intrinsic and built upon knowledge we’ve come to accept as so. If it is based on internal, subjective truth, we may become fearful of investigation, asking What will become of believers if they dare challenge the very doctrine they are invested in as ontological? Under this system of thought, we might feel less of a believer whenever we question any tenet of our faith. Pannenberg says the reasonableness of responding to the Gospel and committing oneself to Jesus must be demonstrable to those who are not yet Christians—those who lack faith from the start. Pannenberg seems to take an apologetics view as he addresses the ruminations of the modern world concerning God and Christology. He believes theology must clearly demonstrate the credibility of its claims. As such, Pennenberg took an objective approach to theology.

Paul Althaus

Paul Althaus says the “truth” of the Christian gospel is not necessarily apparent to those who cannot see it. There’s a sense of predisposition here: The gospel cannot be grasped by those without the “eyes to see” or the “ears to here.” It is, therefore, not objective. Instead, Althaus said the study of systematic theology was relative to what each individual intrinsically believes to be true. There is a troublesome dilemma here: This type of God knowledge is unknowable in any straightforward way by the masses—it is not given in the public arena. Instead, it is merely discerned by the eye of faith specific to the individual.

There is a slight hint of Gnosticism with Althaus in that, as Hart puts it, Althaus argues “the true significance of those facts remains hidden or obscured to unbelief and is only recognized from the particular perspective of faith.” Althaus notes the many outward (public) examples of the signs and miracles performed by Jesus as proof of His claim to be the Messiah. He says, “There is nothing about them which, when viewed by the public at large, compels such recognition.” He thinks faith is not based on progressive accumulation of knowledge or experiences available to all; rather, it amounts to a special dispensation setting some believers apart, revealing truth and demanding an appropriate response, which seems to speak of an internal, relative and subjective belief system. Althaus seems to mix a bit of Calvinism or predestination in with this belief.

Pannenberg disagrees. He says if we accept that the meaning of gospel realities are only knowable based on a “prior decision of faith… then two things seem to follow.” First, we will be forced to embrace relativism, indicating there is no intrinsic truth or value “for its own sake,” only that which we choose to invest in it. Second, Althaus says there is a crude logical gap between public perspective and faith’s perspective. He believes faith to be some “absurd character” lacking any support from the perspective of what is commonly observed. It seems the best point of view for deducing the existence and meaning of God must come from without: As Augustine puts it, knowledge of God must be sought from God. Moreover, Pannenberg says, “Faith is not a blind leap, but a carefully considered and reasoned judgement; not a state of ‘blissful gullibility’ but a venture in which the Christian ‘risks trust, life and future on the fact of God’s having been revealed in the fate of Jesus.”

John Macquarrie

John Macquarrie tended to mix orthodox Christianity and existentialism. He saw faith not as a mechanism or demand as a prerequisite to finding the knowledge of faith and of God—an external, objective approach. Instead, he saw it as “a critical and reflective activity to which faith eventually leads.” Theology for Macquarrie is an activity of faith, but not in the sense that it requires or demands compilation of information through a prerequisite or a priori approach. Instead, he does see theology as a reflective and highly critical undertaking to which faith naturally leads. This writer is not sure how helpful it is to divorce faith from theology, especially when Macquarrie requires that it be set aside during the actual practice of theology. No doubt this is a side-effect of his existential approach to knowing.

Without a firm foundation (faith) on which to build, there remains the chance (with each individual search) to end up down some tangential path that will only serve to confuse and frustrate the search for truth. It is important that believers recognize their individual biases, preconceptions and assumptions about theology (public or private), and, knowing such exist, subject their conclusions to the scrutiny of the community of believers. This permits side-by-side evaluation of prescribed canons of truth, whether rational, historical, experiential, or whatever the focus. Hart says, “Theology, we are given to understand, must play the intellectual game together with everyone else on a level playing-field.”       

Bibliography

Hart, Trevor. Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995.

 

“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?

Dissociative-Identity-Disorder-800x435

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.

Faith Hebrews 11

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.