The Essence of the Gospel

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The Gospel is the heart of the Bible. Everything in Scripture is either preparation for the Gospel, presentation of the Gospel, or participation in the Gospel.

Many believers “know” God intellectually. I did, initially. Actually, in many ways, I still do. I seem to know of Him more than I know Him. But head knowledge doesn’t cut it. It won’t change our lives. It might tell us how our lives can change. It may provide countless biblical examples of what this so-called changed life looks like; what we can and should do once we’ve become a new creation. But it will not imbue us with godliness or allow us to become Christ-like. The only way we can accomplish this is to get God from our head into our heart. Trust me, this is a lot harder than it sounds.

The most important doctrine in the Christian church is the Gospel. Pastors often encourage believers to begin with the Bible, but this approach challenges contemporary telling of the Gospel. For example, some think the Gospel is about social justice, others see it as salvation, and still others might see the Gospel as theological doctrine (kingdom, justification, sanctification). Just referring people to the Bible risks us losing them in the quagmire of confusion. We need to (i) promote the Gospel through how we live; and (ii) break the Gospel message down to the most basic.

We need God in our heart; not just in our head. This, however, is a life-long process.

As Christians, we often want to believe God in our head yet hang on to who we want to be in our heart. The heart is the seat of our soul: our emotions, desires, and will. To hold onto God intellectually while giving in to our every whim and desire of the flesh is precisely what is meant by trying to serve two masters. To dumb it down, this is also referred to as having our cake and eating it too. Eugene Peterson translates Matthew 6:24, “You can’t worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you’ll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other” (MSG). Well, that’s pretty plain, isn’t it? Okay, I’ll admit that from a sociological or legal perspective it is actually possible to serve two masters. But psychologically, or spiritually, if pressured to choose, our devotion for one will always drown out the other.

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As humans, whether we choose to believe it or not, we are servants. Yes, all of us! The bosses. The billionaires. The entrepreneurs. The retirees. Even when we’re not actively serving another human being, we are servants to our wants and desires. Paul understood the broad application of this passage. In Romans 8:5-6, he says, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (NIV). He says we can either be in the flesh (Romans 7:5) or in the Spirit (Romans 8:9). The litmus test for flesh versus Spirit is simple: How do you live your life? What do you give in to on a daily basis?

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE GOSPEL

What is the “essence” of the Gospel? The word Essence refers to the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character. Some relevant synonyms include soul, spirit, ethos, intrinsic nature, reality. That last one is rather on point, isn’t it? As if we’re asking the question, “What is the reality of the Gospel?” Philosophers who teach on worldview talk of discovering the “really real.”

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Unconditional love and unwavering grace is the very essence of the Gospel. Jesus came to Earth to live among us, teach and inspire us, serving as Messiah and Exemplar. Man was created in the image of God. Jesus showed us what it looks like when we mirror that image. His entire life was a legacy of unconditional love, sacrifice, and servitude. We need to show love in all our day-to-day interactions with others. We must fine-tune our ability to recognize someone’s need, and then responding to that need. We are presented daily with opportunities to show love and kindness to those around us. There are many attributes which are manifestations of love, such as kindness, patience, selflessness, understanding, grace, and forgiveness. In all our associations, whenever we can, if we display these attributes it will be outward proof of the love and grace we have in our hearts as a result of becoming one with Christ.

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! — Charles Spurgeon

But what does it mean to preach the entire Gospel? Unfortunately, there are nearly as many answers to this question as there are denominations and sects within the Body of Christ. To truly preach the Gospel is to clearly and unabashedly state every doctrine contained in God’s Word. It includes giving the Word the prominence it deserves. I’ve been to a number of church services in my lifetime. Some of the experiences were, to be as polite as possible, very interesting. Some were, well, just a bit of a downer. All the doom and gloom—how bad we are, nothing but sinners, deserving of eternal pain and separation from God—yet with no mention of the “Good News.” I left more than one sermon feeling as lost and confused as I did when I walked in. Thankfully, I have come full-circle and returned to the church of my youth where I accepted Christ at an alter call at age thirteen and was baptized as an outward display of my new-found faith.

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No man can claim to preach the whole Gospel if he knowingly and routinely leaves out even one single truth about Jesus Christ, God the Father, or the Holy Spirit. I’m a real fanatic when it comes to pastors sticking to the true Gospel message. Many church leaders today “tone it down,” perhaps hoping to avoid offending the congregation. People love hearing “it’s not your fault,” and “Jesus loves you anyway.” They don’t want to be confronted about their wrongdoing. I know I don’t! But I’ve come to accept who I am and realize there is work to be done if I ever hope to fulfill God’s plan for me.

Pastors who are afraid to speak doctrinal truth because they might scare people away are not being shepherds. Such an approach to ministry can actually serve to detract others from the Good News. The apostle Paul summarized the Gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through whom sin is atoned, sinners are reconciled to God, and the hope of the resurrection awaits all who believe. He wrote, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2, NASB). If it sounds like a difficult undertaking, it is. I’ve found it requires singleness of purpose even if we have to wear blinders to the distractions of the flesh.

WHAT’S GOING ON IN OUR CHURCHES?

We’re told in Acts 2:41, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (NIV). The early church grew exponentially. New believers were devoted to the teaching of the Apostles and were possessed by a great sense of awe over God’s glory. I asked a member of my church, “If you had a choice, would you rather be living in the twenty-first century or back in the first century where you’d have a chance to meet Jesus and sit at His feet and hang on His every word? Walk with Him throughout Judea as He tells you about God’s love and grace?” Hands down, he’d rather be living during the time of Christ. Imagine the power and charisma that must have radiated from Jesus! I imagine His empathy and love were palpable. He judged no one. He hated no one. When put to the test by the Pharisees, Jesus always responded with the entire Gospel in mind, typically saying, “It is written.”

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A friend of mine who has served as a youth pastor and associate pastor said, “I am upset and discouraged by the dwindling number true Bible-believing churches that teach the Gospel in America today.” His biggest pet peeve is churches who have “professional” concerts, coffee clatches before or between services, movie night, dozens of support groups, countless missions they support, and yet near-silence on the wages of sin, the answer to breaking free from the bondage of the flesh, and an obligation to preach the entire Gospel. He said, “Church isn’t about entertainment.” Personally, I love worshiping Jesus in song. My church has a full-time (paid) worship leader, and we’ve invested a fairly large of money in sound equipment, in-ear wireless monitors for the team members, lights, and a computer-controlled projection of lyrics and related images.

WATERED-DOWN CHRISTIANITY LEADS TO LUKEWARM CHRISTIANS

Frankly, however, I see my friend’s point. The Christian church of today has been leaning toward “watering down” the Gospel at a critical time in history where we should be screaming from the rooftops the entire truth about sin and death, Christ and grace, the cross and forgiveness. Pastors who preach a less-than message risk lulling their congregations into a state of lukewarmness the Book of Revelation warns us about. Revelation 3:15-16 says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (NIV)[italics mine].

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Lukewarm Christians clearly risk being rejected by Christ. It would seem critical, therefore, that we recognize the signs. First, do you seek God before making decisions? One of the major aspects of the Christian life is trusting God to lead. It’s a desire to see His will in our lives over our own. This requires having faith that God’s way is the best way. The lukewarm Christian doesn’t really believe this; they will always make their own decisions without consulting God. Second, people do not take your “Christian walk” seriously. A lukewarm Christian displays an inconsistent witness at best. Friends are able to tell you’re not “all in” for Jesus. If your friends don’t believe what you confess about your commitment to Jesus, is it because your words don’t match your actions? Third, lukewarm Christians  tend to make a habit of testing the limits of God by trying to serve Him and the flesh. A compromised Christian walk is more dangerous than no walk at all.

Thom S. Rainer, in his blog post “Fifteen Reasons Our Churches are Less Evangelistic Today,” provided the following table listing those reasons:

  1. Christians have lost their sense of urgency to reach lost people.
  2. Many Christians and church members do not befriend and spend time with those who are lost and in need of the Good News.
  3. Many Christians and church members have become apathetic.
  4. We are more known for what we’re against than what we’re for.
  5. Churches have an ineffective evangelistic strategy of “you come” rather than “we go” (see Matthew 28:16-20).
  6. Many church members think that evangelism is the role of the pastor and paid staff.
  7. Church membership today is more about getting “my needs met” rather than reaching the lost and the worse off.
  8. Church members are in a retreat mode as culture become more worldly and unbiblical. Culture has begun to tie the hands of Christianity.
  9. Many church members don’t really believe that Christ is the only way to salvation.
  10. Our churches are no longer houses of prayer.
  11. Churches have lost their focus on making disciples who will be motivated and equipped to reach the lost.
  12. Christians to not wish to share the truth of the Gospel for fear they will offend others. Political correctness is too commonplace, even among Christians.
  13. Most churches have unregenerate members who have not received Christ themselves.
  14. Some churches have theological systems that do not encourage evangelism.
  15. Our churches have too many activities; they are too busy to do the things that really matter.

THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM

The synoptic gospels unite in opening the ministry of Jesus with a summary statement of His message. Matthew writes, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Mark tells us that Jesus preached “…the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (ESV). The Gospel of Luke is specifically addressed to Theophilus and is focused on the complete story and history of Jesus Christ from His birth and ministry to His crucifixion and ressurection. Luke focuses on the teachings of Christ about salvation and Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Messiah. It includes the beautiful birth story of the baby Jesus and the miracle conception by God. The first five verses of the Gospel of John show us the divine participation of Jesus as the Word who was present at the moment of Creation. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made.

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Ed Stetzer (2012) wrote in Christianity Today, “The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.” Of course, evangelism is about speaking Christ to others; it’s also about living Christ in front of others. Virtually any activity provides Christians with the opportunity share their faith in Christ. This involves sharing the good word and doing the good deed. Frankly, this is a huge responsibility. My pastor recently said, “The number one attraction to the Gospel is other Christians.” Makes sense, right? He wasn’t done. He added, “But unfortunately the number one detractor to the Gospel is other Christians.”

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Christian ministers have always sought new ways to attract non-believers to their gatherings. The more non-believers you have, the greater likelihood that at least some of them will come to faith in Jesus. The great British pastor, Charles Spurgeon, observed that when hunting ducks, if you are shooting at a large group of them flying overhead, you have a much greater chance of hitting one or two than if you are shooting at a solitary fowl. However, it is imperative that believers refrain from going to church just to sit in the pew and wait for unbelievers to show up. Clearly, Jesus commanded that we “go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NKJV)[emphasis mine].

Some of the means ministers use to attract people are innovative and effective; others are downright silly and accomplish nothing. Non-Christians may be devoid of the Holy Spirit, but they are usually smart enough to smell nonsense when they see it. Other church leaders, considering themselves too spiritual to ever use any means whatsoever to attract unbelievers, are content to simply pray and preach the gospel, and hope that somehow people will just show up in their meetings. Sometimes it happens; often it does not. However, too many churches have “competitive” and rather manipulative ways to attract non-believers to their gatherings.

This is one situation in which “keep it simple” is the perfect attitude. A successful evangelical message serves to convict people of their sins, explaining the Good News in a contextual manner, while keeping the core message explicit and clear. The message should be delivered from a position of compassion for the lost sheep. This is especially true when reaching out to those whom we believe are living a lifestyle that is in direct contrast to biblical principles. For example, we will never reach same-sex couples, alcoholics, drug addicts, or those experiencing gender confusion if we convict or (worse yet) condemn them. Never forget that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus (see Romans 8:1). We simply cannot reach those whom we despise as we won’t want to spend any time with them. Of course, lastly, the message must be Christ-centered and include reference to what occurred because of the cross.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

References

Peterson, E. (2006). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Rainer, T. (Feb. 23, 2015). “Fifteen Reasons Our Churches are Less Evangelistic Today,” [Web Log Comment]. Retrieved from: https://thomrainer.com/2015/02/fifteen-reasons-churches-less-evangelistic-today/

Stetzer, E. (June 25, 2012). “Preach the Gospel, and Since It’s Necessary, Use Words.” Christianity Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2012/june/preach-gospel-and-since-its-necessary-use-words.html

 

 

 

“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

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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.

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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).

 

Sin’s Lost Dominion

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Paul began his letter to the Romans by setting forth the theme: The righteousness of God (see Romans 1:1-17). In this letter, Paul tells us how to be right—with God, ourselves, and others. Paul also explains to us how one day God will make all of creation right. This is what is meant by restoration, the biblical meaning of which is “to receive back more than has been lost to the point where the final state is greater than the original condition.” This type of restoration is broader in scope than the standard dictionary definition. The main point is that someone or something is improved beyond measure. Throughout the Bible, God blesses people for their faith and hardships by making up for their losses and giving them more than they had previously. Job comes to mind.

Romans was not written for daydreamers or religious sightseers. We have to think as we study Romans, but the rewards will be worth our effort. If we grasp the doctrinal message of Romans, we’ll have the key to understanding the rest of the Bible. Moreover, we will have the secret of successful Christian living. In fact, Paul sent this letter to believers in Rome in order to provide them with a clear declaration of Christian doctrine. We need to reexamine our commitment to Christ as we read Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

Chapter 6 is a crucial part of Romans. Paul wanted believers to understand that when we’re saved, we become new creations in Christ. We are granted access to the mind of Christ. In fact, we’re told to put on the mind of Christ. It is with this in mind that Paul says believers must die to sin and live to God. He presses the importance of holiness in the first two verses of Romans 6.

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“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer” (Romans 6:1-2, NIV).

If God loves to forgive us and wash us in the blood of His Son, why not give Him more to forgive? If forgiveness is guaranteed, do we not have the freedom to sin as much as we desire to? Paul’s forceful answer, of course, is By no means! Such an attitude—deciding ahead of time to take advantage of the grace of God—shows that a person does not understand the seriousness of sin and its consequences. It is akin to premeditation. Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. God’s forgiveness does not make sin less serious; His Son’s death for our sin shows us the dreadful seriousness of sin. It is not something to be trifled with. Accordingly, God’s mercy must not become an excuse for careless living and moral laxness.

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Paul does not explain away the free grace of the Gospel, but he shows that justification and holiness are inseparable. The very thought that sin should continue simply to ensure that grace might thrive was abhorred by Paul. He taught that true believers are dead to sin, meaning they’ve been freed from bondage through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s point was that although we cannot out-sin the grace of God, we must reckon our bodies dead to sin—we should no longer be dominated by it. After all, as Romans 6:6 says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (NIV).

Buried With Him; Raised With Him

“That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country. Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call! ” (Romans 6:3-6, MSG).

The above translation is from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. It is quite compelling. When we’re a new creation in Christ we develop a desire to become one with Him. The best way to express that underlying desire to others is through a change in character and a modification of behavior. We become willing to follow His commands. Baptism teaches the necessity of dying to sin, and being buried from all ungodly and unholy pursuits. We rise to walk with God in newness of life.

Romans 6:10 tells us, “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (NIV). Martin Luther wrote in his Commentary on Romans, “From this we clearly see what the words of the Apostle mean. All such statements as: 1. ‘We are dead to sin,” 2. ‘We live unto God,’ etc., signify that we do not yield to our sinful passions and sin, even though sin continues in us. Nevertheless, sin remains in us until the end of our life, as we read in Galatians 5:17: ‘The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other.'” However, Luther adds, “But to hate the body of sin and to resist it, is not an easy, but a most difficult task.”

A Living Sacrifice

“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourself to God as those who have brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14, NIV).

The Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible footnote for Romans 6:12 says, “Having proved the sinfulness of both Jews and Gentiles and that both must be redeemed alike by Christ through faith and grace, Paul now takes up the argument of the divine method of dealing with sin and the secret of a victorious holy life… the questions come up that if salvation is free and apart from works—if the more heinous the sins the more abundant the grace to pardon—then may we not go on in sin so that the grace of God may become magnified? God forbid” (p. 287).

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Luther notes in his preface to Commentary on Romans, “This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul” (p. 101). He states in the body of his Commentary that we are not found in a state of perfection as soon as we have been baptized into Jesus Christ and His death. Having been baptized into His death, we merely strive to obtain the blessings of this death and to reach our goal of glory.

“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourself to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness. But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:15-18, NIV).

Paul is describing licentiousness in the above passage. Literally, a license to sin. You’ll notice Paul asks the same question he put to the Romans in verse one, just in case they didn’t get it. This time he expands on the slavery example that he mentioned in verse seven. In verses fifteen through eighteen he states that the master you choose leads either to righteousness and life or to sin and death. One way or the other, we will serve somebody. The option to live life without serving either sin or righteousness is not open to us.

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, says “So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want?” (Romans 6:15, MSG). This is a rather eye-opening interpretation of Paul’s words. Since we’re free in the sanctification of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. I believe Paul’s intent is to clarify the fact that if we offer ourselves to sin it will be our last free act.

Paul is telling us the buzzword for this section of Chapter 6 is yield. It means “to place at one’s disposal, to present, to offer as a sacrifice.” The flow of Paul’s argument in Romans is to first set forth the fallen condition of all men, then the Gospel message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul is appealing to the believers in Rome to offer themselves unto God, bowing to His will for them, because of all that God has done for them. Also, it’s important to note that Paul is focusing on “living sacrifices” instead of the dead sacrifices God required under the Law of Moses (see Romans 12:1).

Sin Shall Not Reign

Paul’s point is this: “That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you’ve been raised from the dead!—into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God” (Romans 6:12-14, MSG). Luther writes, “This is understood not only of lusting after earthly goods and temporal possessions, but also of aversion to temporal affliction and adversity. He who has Christ by faith does not desire the things of this world, no matter how greatly they may allure Him” (p. 104).

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This doesn’t mean we become unaffected by temptation just because we’re saved by grace. We are susceptible to both pleasure and displeasure. The key is to refuse to let sin reign in our lives. Again, we are not under the Law but under grace. This is true because the Law has been fulfilled by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus tells us in John 8:34, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (NIV). Luther notes Paul’s point as follows. “The apostle here meets the objection: How can anyone resist the onslaught of sin and passion? To this he replies: Sin shall not have dominion over you nor triumph over you, no matter how fiercely it may tempt and assail you, provided you do not yield to it. But he who is without faith in Christ is always dominated by sin, even when he does good…” (p. 105) [Italics added].

Every man is the servant of the master to whose commands he yields himself; whether it be the sinful tendencies of his heart, in actions which lead to death, or the new and spiritual obedience implanted by regeneration. Paul rejoices in verse 18: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (NIV). We have a new Master if we want to obey Him. We became enslaved to righteousness. God gave us a new Master; not a license to sin. Paul told the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery” (NIV). As believers, we have been purchased from the bonds of slavery to sin.

Concluding Remarks

When we accept Christ as Savior and confess our faith in Him, our past is blotted out through His atoning blood. Regardless of the nature of our offenses. Our past literally disappears from the sight of God. Psalm 103:10-12 tells us, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (NIV).

When we’re born again, we identify ourselves with Jesus in His crucifixion. We can honestly say, “I am crucified.” Surely, we have no nail holes in our hands and feet, no scar in our side, but in a “legal” sense, as God looks upon us, He sees us crucified with Christ. We are not only crucified with Christ in His death, we are raised up with Him in his resurrection, unto a new creation. When we die with Christ, we die to our anger and resentment. Illicit lusts and desires are dealt with. Unclean habits no longer hold power over us. But let us not forget that just because we are born again we are not incapable of sinning. It is imperative that we identify with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. We must decide that we have been quickened—raised up together with Christ in new life. Only then will we be able to face the demonic powers of Satan. Our mantra must be Sin shall not have dominion over me because I have been raised from spiritual death with Christ.

References

Kennedy, F., Germaine, A., and Dake, Jr., F. (2008). Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible. Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing, Inc.

Luther, M. (1954). Commentary on Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Ephesians: Grace in Everyday Life

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The book of Ephesians allows us to take a closer look at the grace God extended to us by raising us to new life in Christ. God wants us to live our lives out of a rich experience of His grace on a daily basis. Interestingly, we forget that as believers we still need God’s mercy and grace just as much as we did before we knew Jesus as Lord and Savior. When we forget the grace of God, we can fall into two distinct errors. We can become filled with spiritual pride, or we can live with a complete sense of failure as we get a glimpse of what the human heart is really like. In fact, we read in Scripture that the heart is the seat of indwelling sin—the heart is the spiritual part of us where our emotions and desires reside. Nothing can ensnare us more than our natural instincts running wild.

DO YOU HAVE A HEART FOR GOD?

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The Bible mentions the heart almost 1,000 times. It is important to note that God also has a “heart.” Of course, we’re not speaking of the physical, beating, four-chamber organ that pumps blood throughout our corporeal bodies. God has emotions and desires, and it is His wish that we develop our heart—our emotions and our focus—after His heart. Acts 13:22 tells us David was a man “after God’s own heart.” This is not an easy undertaking. The human heart, in its natural condition, is evil, treacherous, and deceitful. I was able to take an uncomfortable but critical look at my own heart during a class at Colorado Christian University on Worldviews. My Christian “walk” did not match my Christian “talk” for nearly my entire life. I had a pastor tell me once, “I don’t think you have a heart for God.” It was like getting punched in the stomach!

“The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis. 6:5, NIV).

Whether we know or understand our own heart or not, God does. Psalm 44:21 tells us, “Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart” (NASB). Jesus “knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Based on His intimate knowledge of the heart, God has the capacity to judge man righteously. Jeremiah 17:10 says, “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (NIV). Jesus pointed out the fallen condition of our hearts in Mark 7:21-22: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly” (NIV). All these come from within us and make us unclean.

Evil Within

In other words, we all have a heart problem. Since sin is lodged within our very hearts, and is in no way peripheral to our experience, it is indeed capable of exerting enormous influence over our heart. Naturally, this has an impact—good or bad—over our behavior and, ultimately, our character. Of greatest consequence is the fact that the human heart is both deceitful and unsearchable. No one understands the importance of knowing the heart more than an alcoholic working his or her way through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step Four strongly recommends making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This exercise is intended to bring the alcoholic to the real problem—character flaws.

THE REDEEMED HEART

It is important that we understand such indwelling deceitfulness requires constant watchfulness. The apostle Peter tells us, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, NIV). Accordingly, it is important that in our struggle to guard our hearts we commit all things to Christ. In 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, Paul said, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. They have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretense that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (NIV).

I Am Redeemed

The redeemed soul, by the grace of God and His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:13), must press on toward perfection. Does this mean we must get everything right and never make a mistake? No. That would be impossible. In Christian doctrine, perfection means maturity. Our role in this process is to cooperate with God. Allow our thoughts to be taken captive to obeying the commands and example of Jesus. It is through obedience that we can put to death the deeds of the body (Philippians 2:12-13). Furthermore, we need to do this daily for as long as we possess our physical bodies.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

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We must never think that our work of contending against sin—in crucifying, mortifying and subduing it—is at an end. Again, we are not literally to become perfect and without sin. We’ve all sinned and fall short of ever hoping to earn God’s glory. We are not save by good works. Frankly, we’re not capable of consistently practicing only good works. We are, however, saved onto good works. We are to avoid the practice of sin, which amounts to knowingly, willingly, repeatedly sinning without repenting. Remember, the word repent means to “turn away from.” It involves “doing a 180!” Again, I do not possess the innate capacity to do this. I can be absolutely adamant about not gossiping or judging, but five minutes later I’m doing it again.

True victory will come to those who die having fought the good fight day after day.

 

The Jesus Way (Part One)

Jesus With Open Arms

Jesus taught an alternative to the dominant ways of the world, not a supplement to them. It is sad how often we see the world—in fact, even fellow believers—unquestionably embrace the habits of high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, conglomerates, universities, nations, and causes; people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate behavior, and instruct our young. We take absolutely no time to contemplate how many of these “ways” violate the way of Jesus. What is the Jesus way?

The Heart of Jesus

The heart of Jesus was pure, but what is a “pure-hearted” person? Dictionary.com says to have a pure heart is to be without malice, treachery, or evil intent. This person would be honest, sincere, without guile. Jesus, of course, was without guile. He had no evil thoughts or intent and was without sin. Peter, who traveled with Jesus for over three years, described Him as a “lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Pet. 1:19). Jesus was purposeful, tenacious, and dedicated to serving the will of the Father. He was so focused on His task that He knew when to say, “My time has not yet come” (John 2:4) and when to say, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

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Jesus saw the good in everyone and everything. His very thoughts were pleasant. Children flocked to Him. He could find beauty in the butterflies and the lilies of the valley, joy in worship, and possibilities in the midst of even the worst of circumstances. He would spend days surrounded by multitudes of sick people and yet remain compassionate in every instance. It is phenomenal that He spent more than three decades wading through the muck and mire—the horrible consequences of man’s sin and fall from grace—yet still saw enough beauty in us to die for our mistakes.

His Teachings and Miracles

During the three years between His baptism and His death and resurrection, Jesus traveled throughout the land of the Hebrews ministering to the people. His ministry can be divided into two key aspects. First were His teachings. Looking to Scripture, we see that Christ taught from a position of authority (Matt. 7:29) and wisdom (Matt. 13:54). The crowds were astonished and amazed by His lessons. Even those who doubted Jesus was the Messiah were stirred by His words.

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The second aspect of Jesus’ ministry revolved around His miracles. The Bible records 35 such incidents during His three years of public ministry. These amazing events range from walking on water (Matt. 14:25) to raising people from the dead (Matt. 11:38-44). It’s worth noting that these are only the miracles that were written in Scripture. In fact, if every one of them were written down even the whole world would not have enough room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).

THIS WEEK’S TOPIC:

Gender Dysphoria

Gender has become a matter of uncertainty. Rather than male or female, many see gender as a “relative” matter—on a continuum. They consider gender or sexual identity to be less a reality given at conception than a matter of personal discovery. Transgender questions today carry an urgency unimaginable five years ago. The debate has become all-encompassing. Issues such as civil rights, protection from persecution and discrimination, culture, education, acceptance, spiritual ramifications, and counseling are complex. One main question is whether it is appropriate for parents of so-called transgendered children to allow their kids – who have not yet reached the end of puberty – to define their own gender and establish their goals and life values relative to gender identity and sexuality.

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Most churches and Christians find themselves exposed due their lack of knowledge and understanding—about gender issues and grace. What does the Bible have to say about living life in a gender-nonconforming way? What can faithfulness to Christ look like for a person who desires—who might even say needs—to live such a life?

A biblical perspective on what makes us human emphasizes the role of community. Individuals are “active agents” rather than merely passive objects impacted by genetic and environmental factors. Balswick and Balswick (2014) believe the search for authentic sexuality appropriately starts with an attempt to understand how we are to behave as sexual persons. Achieving authentic sexuality, however, depends more on understanding who God created us to be as a sexual person. Sexuality includes such factors as biology, gender, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and values.

According to Scripture, when God created human beings He created them male and female and blessed their marital union (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:20-25). Moses, Jesus, and the apostle Paul are united in their approach to the moral norms that govern male-female sexual behavior. The God-ordained roles assigned to men and women are clearly laid out in Scripture. How does this help understand gender identity confusion? If the Bible succinctly describes our sexuality as an intended component of God’s intelligent design, perhaps gender dysphoria, along with homosexuality, is an adulteration of that design, which is clearly predicated on our “fallen nature.” Because of Original Sin, nothing is as God intended it to be. The entire universe has been adversely impacted by the Fall. 

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It could be said that dismissing the legitimacy of a person’s experiences is to dismiss the person. Certainly, we shouldn’t dismiss, but feel compassion for, anyone experiencing mental distress regarding conflict between their gender identity and their body. It is important for Christians to realize that people who experience distress, anguish, and conflict over their perceived gender identity really do exist. They’re not freaks. They’re not merely “cross-dressers” or people desiring to “gender-bend.” Their experience cannot be reduced to simply “living a lie” since most don’t feel they are lying to themselves. Actually, the opposite is true. People with genuine cases of gender dysphoria believe they’re being lied to by their body. Such an individual typically becomes convinced he or she is actually a member of the opposite sex.

Psychology Doesn’t Change Ontology

So what is the best approach to this issue?

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First, Christians welcome all into the grace of the Gospel because the Gospel is applicable and available to all (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Accordingly, our priority must be to offer genuine love to those struggling with gender or sexual identity. We are, however, required to confront such issues with biblical truth. Fact: God made men and women different (Gen. 1:27). Sexual differences are not graded on a continuum where some men are more like women or vice versa. Men and women are different at the deepest levels of their being. Our chromosomes are different. Our brains are different. Our voices are different. Our body shapes and sizes are different. Our reproductive systems are different. Our body strengths are different. Because men and women are different, it’s philosophical impossible for a man to become a woman, or a woman to become a man.

If God made man and woman fundamentally and comprehensively different, then the idea that a man could ever become a woman is simply impossible. The differences between men and women can’t be overcome simply because one person believes they are a member of the opposite sex. Your psychology—your cognition and emotions—cannot change your ontology.

“Truth is not first produced by a method but inhabits experience itself prior to any cognitive labor.” – Andrew Feenberg

Scripture does not specifically address a contemporary understanding of gender as a socially constructed concept different different from biological sex. A Christian response to gender dysphoria is better established through a biblical theology of the body rather than by combing the Scriptures for proof texts in light of specific behaviors.

At the crux of the transgender experience is gender incongruence, an internal sense of a gender identity that is at odds with one’s birth gender. Lately, a common way to deal with that incongruence is to show a preference for one’s internal “sense” of gender as representing one’s true self in opposition to physical identity. A biblical theology of the body, however, argues that it is essential to reference the physical body when determining gender identity. The biblical definition of man and woman remains regardless of the cultural understanding of gender.

Christianity Today on Transgender Christians

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On June 22, 2018, Christianity Today published an article called “Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms.” The article referenced a book written by Austen Hartke titled Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians. Hartke’s identity is as important to the book as the subject matter he covers. Hartke was born female. He experienced gender dysphoria in his youth. His decision to transition from female to male was not made lightly. Naturally, he wondered if there was a place in mainline Christianity for someone like him who didn’t agree with every iota of Christian doctrine, who was gender-nonconforming, and who considered himself bisexual. Certainly, not all believers are on the same page on this sensitive issue.

Hartke decided there was a place for him in Christianity. He was baptized in 2008, and went on to graduate from Luther Seminary’s master’s program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies. He hosts a YouTube series called “Transgender and Christian” and is increasingly sought after at conferences and events. Hartke says his ministry is “to help other trans and gender-nonconforming people to see themselves in Scripture.” His main tenet is that transgender people must be embraced by the church on their own terms. He believes that if transgender feelings are real, they are therefore good and blessed by God.

In Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Mark Yarhouse sets forth three main frameworks for understanding the origins and morality of transgender phenomena and then offers an integrated framework he supports. His position is popular among conservatives who sympathize with transgender individuals while at the same time affirming the goodness of sex and gender as God designed them. He argues that gender dysphoria is a result of the Fall—a view I personally maintain—and thus an example of brokenness that deserves deep compassion rather than moral blame. Hartke’s answer to this position is that gender dysphoria “is not original sin manifesting within us. It’s the effects of the Fall showing up in the way human being treat each other.” To me, suggesting that this abuse and persecution is the true fallen condition of mankind, rather than such abuse and gender incongruence being distinct results of the Fall, seems to miss the point. I believe the Fall tends to warp and twist our world.

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In order to counter this argument, Hartke agrees that the incongruence between internalized gender and biological gender “might possibly” be a result of the Fall, but quickly asserts that “this does not mean that the person’s movement away from suffering toward affirmation of their perceived gender identity is sinful.” He compares “gender affirmation” to getting eyeglasses. To me, the glasses metaphor doesn’t hold: No one contends that there is a moral component to correcting poor vision. Obviously, choosing to express one’s gender in a way that obfuscates one’s God-given sex invariably makes a moral statement—that we are free to reject God’s design when our own desires point elsewhere. How can one hold this position without systematically rejecting Genesis 1?

Christian theology has consistently sought to distinguish desires and feelings from behavior. Greed, rage, jealousy, resentment, arrogance, depression, and the many shapes that lust can take are but a few examples of feelings or desires that every human experiences to various degrees and at various times. I believe such desires are part of fallen human nature itself (Gal. 5:17 or 1 John 2:16). Regardless, this is no excuse. Such desire is to be opposed and curbed, rather than to be given free reign (Rom. 13:14). The
Christian theological tradition has therefore sought always to distinguish between desires and acting out on desires, and between specific behavioral sins and the sinner. It recognizes that in our fallen humanity, behavior can be disciplined to some degree, while inner feelings are far less subject to human control.

Christianity understands homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgendered identity and desire within such an overall moral framework. It seeks to follow natural law (the objective truth of our bodies) and the revealed truth of Scripture, even if the truth conflicts with societal or professional opinions, such as that of psychology or psychiatry. One response to such reflection is that, while there is biblical direction which clearly forbids homosexual activity, there is no explicit scriptural reference to transgendered individuals. There are only references that hint at implications for the individual who feels discomfort with his or her identity as male or female.

THE JESUS WAY

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Jesus was the most forceful, demanding teacher who ever lived. He taught that even one’s closest family members must give way to loyalty to Him (Luke 14:26). Several words in the Greek New Testament reveal insight into the amazing compassion of the Lord, even in the face of sinful behavior. He wished that no one would suffer. That none would perish for all of eternity. Consider Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (NIV). Bromiley (1985) notes that the term tempted (as noted in the above Scripture) is touched in the Greek, stating the word “does not signify a sympathetic understanding that is ready to condone [behavior], but a fellow feeling that derives from full acquaintance with the seriousness of the situation as a result of successfully withstanding the temptation” [Emphasis mine].

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We are told in John 14:6 that Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” We simply cannot proclaim the Jesus truth then act any way we want. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth. Those two positions are diametrically opposed. But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way. We can’t skip the way of Jesus in a hurry to get to the truth of Jesus as He is worshiped and proclaimed. Frankly, I don’t see how we can even hope to get to the truth of Jesus without deciding to follow the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is the way that we practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus, living Jesus in our homes and workplaces.

We know that Jesus associated with the outcasts of His day. Please note I am not suggesting transgender or gay individuals should be considered “outcasts.” However, the example Jesus showed during His lifetime for those who were outcasts demonstrated compassion and concern while they were yet sinners. Granted, countless numbers of transgendered or gay individuals do not necessarily buy into the “sin” concept regarding their choices. Jesus reserved His condemnation for religious zealots who lived a hypocritical and highly judgmental lifestyle. So it is worth asking if Jesus came today, would He associate with transgendered and gay people? Would He visit them in their homes or go to their parties? Or would He only associate with “good” churchgoers?

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The Jesus way is a way of sacrifice. A way of freedom. A way of holiness. But it is also a way of compassion and unconditional love. Do we emulate Him in our churches today? Do we make transgendered and gay individuals feel welcome? Do we treat them as our equals? Can they see the love of Christ in us? Would we invite a gay couple to our home for dinner? If we find ourselves answering No to these questions, how can we expect such individuals to trust God enough to consider surrendering their sexuality to Him? How can we expect them to see God as loving and compassionate if we make Him appear to be unloving and judgmental? They already know the “abomination” texts in the Bible.We should not throw Scripture at these individuals.

The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of God’s character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them. (Ellen G. White)

Concluding Remarks

Not only does the male/female relationship reflect the image of God, but their coming together in marriage to bring forth new life reflects the deepest and most intimate analogy of God’s relationship with His people. Throughout Scripture, God and His people are portrayed as husband and wife or as a groom and bride. The creation account found in Genesis lays out this gender-based, matrimonial picture and sets the stage for the eternal union of God and His people—of Christ and His bride—described in Revelation.

Gender matters. In recent years, a revisionist transgender theology has been put forth in some theological circles that violates God’s clearly articulated and intentional design for the sexes—thereby distorting His image and His plan for sexuality, marriage, family and the just and proper ordering of society. Unfortunately, the discussion regarding this issue often becomes convoluted, incoherent, or angry, degenerating into a shouting match. Regardless, we must come to grips with the fact that God isn’t silent about human sexuality. The key to this issue must be grounded in Scripture; however, we simply cannot dismiss transgendered or gay people out of hand.

In his presentation on Christians and homosexuality, Joe Dallas (2014) says, “The voice that must go out from the Christian community is one that is absolutely unsparing in truth and will not compromise under the worst conditions, yet also equally unsparing in love, saying ‘Hate us and we will love you. We will be to you what you need us to be.’ For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, just as Paul said, and we’ll be asked what we did in this life. Surely, that interrogation will include how we responded to the responsibilities and issues of our time. May God help us on that day when we are asked to give an account of how we responded to the difficult issue [of gender fluidity and homosexuality] so that we might hear Him say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Please join me next week for The Jesus Way (Part Two): Marriage and Divorce.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

Bromiley, G. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Balswick, J. and Balswick, J. (2014). The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home, 4th Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press.

Dallas, J. (2014). How Should We Respond? An Exortation to the Church on Loving the Homosexual. Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family.

Gilson, R. (June 22, 2018). Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/june-web-only/austen-hartke-transforming-transgender-neighbors.html

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.

Christ Suffered and Died: For the Forgiveness of Our Sins

DURING THE WEEK LEADING up to Easter I will present seven distinct reasons why Christ suffered and died, culminating on Easter Sunday with To Reconcile Us to God. Today we look at Christ suffering and dying for the forgiveness of our sins.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses. (Ephesians 1:7)

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WHEN WE FORGIVE a debt or an offense or an injury, we don’t require a payment for settlement. That would be the opposite of forgiveness. If repayment is made to us for what we lost, there is no need for forgiveness. We have our due. Forgiveness assumes grace. If I am injured by you, grace lets it go. I don’t sue you. I forgive you. Grace gives what someone doesn’t deserve. That’s why forgiveness has the word give in it. Forgiveness is not “getting” even. It is giving away the right to get even.

That is what God does to us when we trust Christ: “Everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (Acts 10:43). If we believe in Christ, God no longer holds our sins against us. This is God’s own testimony in the Bible: “I, I am He who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake” (Isaiah 43:25). “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

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But this raises a problem. We all know that forgiveness is not enough. We may only see it clearly when the injury is great—like murder or rape. Neither society nor the universe can hold together if judges (or God) simply say to every murderer and rapist, “Are you sorry? Okay. The state forgives you. You may go.” In cases like these we see that while a victim may have a forgiving spirit, the state cannot forsake justice.

So it is with God’s justice. All sin is serious, because it is against God. He is the one whose glory is injured when we ignore or disobey or blaspheme Him. His justice will no more allow him simply to set us free than a human judge can cancel all  the debts that criminals owe to society. The injury done to God’s glory by our sin must be repaired so that in justice his glory shines more brightly. And if we criminals are to go free and be forgiven, there must be some dramatic demonstration that the honor of God is upheld even though former blasphemers are being set free.

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That is why Christ suffered and died. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7). Forgiveness costs us nothing. All our costly obedience is the fruit, not the root, of being forgiven. That’s why we call it grace. But it cost Jesus His life. That is why we call it just. O how precious is the news that God does not hold our sins against us! And how beautiful is Christ, whose blood made it right for God to do this.