The Prodigal Son (God’s Reckless Love)

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet… for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry” (Luke 15:21-22, 24, NRSV).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

IT’S NO SECRET THAT there are many ways to read, study, and interpret literature. Such investigation and analysis is called exegesis. It involves the careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text. Some call this “scholarly reading,” which I’ve learned to apply to my graduate studies in theology. Exegesis is described as reading in a way that ascertains the crux of a text; a type of “close reading,” deliberate, word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase, considering all the parts for a better understand of the text or verse as a whole.

There are three major approaches to exegesis: (1) the synchronic approach (meaning “within time” or “same time”), which can be considered a narrative-critical, social-scientific, or socio-rhetorical analysis; (3) the diachronic approach (meaning “across time,” focusing on origin and development and the “long view,” which is essentially an historical-critical analysis; and (3) the existential approach (something to be “engaged with,” looking at the reality beyond the text, “spiritual” truth beyond the “literal” truth). I will be using the existential method to analyze the story of the prodigal son. Please note this does not imply any connection to the philosophy of existentialism associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard. Rather, existential exegesis is theological and transformative; it is done in the context of a specific religious tradition or theological purpose.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known stories of Jesus. Although many pastors, teachers, and biblical scholars refer to it as the story of the prodigal son, the word prodigal does not appear in the Bible. The son is best characterized as lost, emphasizing that all sinners are lost or alienated from God. To characterize him as “prodigal” casts too much emphasis on wayward lifestyle. If we limit our analysis of the prodigal son to his wanton worldly behavior, we will miss the point of the story. It is in fact more akin to the tale of the lost sheep. This story is meant to demonstrate that we  do not have to stay in our hopeless state. Moreover, it is an example of Scripture imitating life, in that it shows us what repentance means: turning away from sin and back toward the Father; doing a 180 as they call it.

Eugene Peterson puts the story of the prodigal son under the heading The Story of the Lost Son in his translation The Message. This parable shows the nature of repentance, and, more importantly, the joy and the willingness of God to welcome and restore all who return to Him. It shows us the riches of the gospel and its efficacy to overcome any form of sin. Matthew Henry draws a unique parallel between our heavenly Father and the prodigal’s earthy father. He says, “It is bad, and the beginning of worse, when men look upon God’s gifts as debts due to them” (1). Scripture tells us to not seek the wealth of this world. Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Matthew Henry draws a parallel between the prodigal son and our First Parents. Their foolish ambition to be independent from the Father is at the bottom of every sinner persisting in sin and autonomy. The First Sin relates to man’s departure from God, toward a willful reliance on his own thoughts and valuations rather than ascribing to God’s. We see from the prodigal son that his desire to be free from his father led to a vile, hedonistic, slavish state of being. When we walk in the flesh (fulfilling its every desire) we become the devil’s servant. Walking according to fleshly desires and instincts invariably leads to a state of constant discontent. This is what it means to be a lost sheep, wandering the face of the earth in search of constant gratification, separated from God.

Exegetical Analysis

The parable of the prodigal son reveals two distinct issues: one literary, the other theological. From a literary perspective, the story revolves around two brothers: one younger, the other older. This does not indicate two separate stories, but two parts that compliment one another. Because of this focus on two brothers, it is helpful to analyze this parable from both an existential and historical/sociopolitical perspective. Historically, the “share of the estate” that the younger son would receive on the death of his father would be one-third. Culture during those times dictated that the older son would receive two-thirds, often referred to as a “double portion,” and the second son would receive the remaining one-third (see Deut. 21:17). When the property “was divided” in the story of the prodigal son, the older son was made aware of his share of the father’s assets prior to his father’s death. This was unusual in the prevailing society.

From a sociopolitical perspective, when the prodigal son asked for his portion of the inheritance, it’s as if he wished his father dead! New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey (2), who spent over 15 years in the Middle East, asked a number of people there what it meant for a son to request his inheritance while the father was still alive and well. The answer was always the same: the son wanted his father dead. In that culture, a father was expected to have complete control over his property during his lifetime, so the request of the prodigal son was quite offensive. The father’s willingness to comply with his son’s request was generous beyond all expectations. In addition, the older son in such cases was typically expected to step in and help the father save face with anyone attacking his estate. This does not happen in the parable of the prodigal son; neither son lived up to what was expected.

The wasting of all the son had while “in a foreign land” is culturally understood as acting against the family, whose inheritance can be traced back to the promises of God to Abraham. The famine made employment and food quite hard to get. The “distant country” was likely outside strictly Jewish territory. It is no coincidence that the son also ended up with the demeaning job of feeding pigs—these are unclean animals for the Jews. He had fallen so low that “no one gave him anything,” which indicates a state of complete destitution and neglect.

From a theological perspective, it is important to note there were 100 sheep (15:4), 10 coins (15:8), and 2 sons. One is lost from each number. The sheep and coin were sought after diligently until they were recovered. However, the lost son was not sought after. He was personally responsible for his coming back home. His rebellion was deliberate and “of the heart,” meaning only a change of heart would suffice for his restoration. This is extremely important from a theological perspective. It is one thing to “know” in your head what is right and what is wrong, but it is a different matter to make a heart-felt decision to change one’s behavior, one’s path—to “do a 180” as I said earlier. This was quite true regarding my wandering in the wilderness for decades in active addiction, making choices that belied morality. I never considered this crucial element in the prodigal son’s restoration before now.

The lost son’s behavior is deemed “riotous living” (15:13). The Greek word is asotos, which translates “living ruinously.” It is properly interpreted as meaning “unsavedness” or, by implication, profligacy, suggesting excess or riot. It is from the root asôtia, referring to being “not savable; incorrigible, dissolute, beyond hope.” It also implies debauchery or drunkenness (see Eph. 5:18). Of course, theologically speaking, the lost son “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). His condition brought him to his senses and he realized how his riotous life would end. Further, he considered his current predicament as being worse than his father’s hired servants, who had bread enough to spare (15:17). He decided he would return to his father’s house and ask his forgiveness.

The prodigal son showed true repentance—confession of sin, genuine sorrow, and humility. The Greek word for repentance in this verse is metanoeo, meaning “to change one’s mind for the better” (see Luke 13:3). This is more than forsaking sin; it involves a complete change in one’s attitude and orientation toward all sinful behavior. In fact, it is this degree of repentance God expects from us as a condition for receiving His forgiveness and grace. The prodigal son demonstrated complete humility. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (15:21). 

The motivation for the son’s return was hunger, but theologically it was to his “father” that he wanted to return; not to the dinner table. The words “against heaven” (15:21) can mean “to heaven,” indicating he believed his sins were so many as to reach the Heavenly Father—perhaps he believed his sins were ultimately against God. The Jews were aware of Yahweh’s “fatherly” love. Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him.” The son knew he had no right to return “as a son.” He imagined saying to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (15:19). In other words, he planned to earn his room and board when he returned home.

The Lost Has Been Found!

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found! And they began to have a wonderful time” (15:20-24, MSG).

What does this parable tell us? We’ve looked at several specific words and phrases (lexical items), such as “loose living” (15:13), “came to himself” (15:17), and repentance (15:21; 13:3). Looking at these words and phrases as they appear in utterances, verses, stanzas, and the text as a whole, we see the “completeness” of this story. This great parable speaks of true repentance and the complete joy a father has for a penitent son. Jesus addressed the “murmurings” of the Pharisees early in the story, saying “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (15:4-5). He then drove the point home: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7).

The details in this story are vivid and moving. Further, they accurately reflect actual customs and legal procedures of the relevant time period. The older son is much like the Pharisees. He could not comprehend the meaning of true forgiveness. In fact, the viewpoints of the two sons are diametrically opposed. The lost son rises and returns; the older son turns and walks away from his father in disgust, falling in moral stature. The central figure, the father, remains constant in his unconditional love for both sons regardless of their behavior or their attitude. Jesus identifies himself with God in his loving attitude toward the lost. He represents God’s perspective during his entire ministry on earth. This parable is one of the greatest examples of God’s willingness to forgive and to accept the return of every lost son or daughter. 

Concluding Remarks

Who are you in this parable? Are you the lost son, a Pharisee, a servant? Are you the older son who was bitter and jealous over the father’s forgiveness and blessing of the younger son who repented and returned home? Are you able to rejoice when a lost sheep is found, or are you taken captive by a righteous indignation, saying, “Why do you lavish him so? He disrespected and disowned you! I’ve been here all along. Where is my adoration?”

Family dynamics is rather fascinating. Even in the family of an addict or alcoholic we can see various roles played out: the Scapegoat (the one blamed for every wrong and ill within the family, sometimes the addict); the Punisher (often a sibling who has “always been there” for the family, and who doles out “consequences” on the addict or protects the family from the addict); the Enabler (usually a member who covers for the addict, trying to smooth things over or restore peace and order in the family, giving him or her enough rope to maybe change one day); the Hero (usually a Type-A personality who is hard-working, overachieving, a perfectionist, who is trying to create a degree of normalcy in the family); the Masot (often the funny, outgoing, class clown of the family always trying to quell the stress of the situation by supplying humor); and the Lost Child (often the middle or youngest child, shy, withdrawn, usually hates confrontation, and has difficulty with establishing outside relationships).

The parable of the prodigal son provides a wealth of theological meaning and puts an historical and sociopolitical spin on the nature of family dynamics during the era when this story was told. It can serve as an in-depth analysis of dysfunctional families today, showing us how easily we can resent the success of others; acceptance of a rebellious, riotous son or daughter who is welcomed back into the fold; righteous indignation by others in the family when a wayward son or daughter returns. It is not easy to forgive others who have harmed us or our loved ones. Thankfully, the parable of the prodigal son can serve to broaden our horizons regarding true repentance, unconditional love, and forgiveness. This is, after all, the point of the gospel itself.

Footnotes

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 962.

(2) Jirair Tashjian, “Inheritance Practices in the First Century,” The Voice, Christian Resource Institute (2018). URL: http://www.crivoice.org/inheritance.html

 

 

Sixty-Eight Percent!

“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2, NRSV).

Written by Steven Barto B.S., Psy.

IF I WERE TO TELL you there is a malady affecting sixty-eight percent of Christian men, would you not want to hear about it? Further, would you be concerned that this issue prevents Christians from being filled with the Holy Spirit? Without a Spirit-filled life, a Christian cannot flow in the peace and power of God; only the Holy Spirit can produce the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Essentially, the Holy Spirit is a flowing spring of pure, satisfying, and refreshing spiritual water. Impure thoughts and images cause this vital living water to be contaminated. Our thought life largely determines the kind of spiritual water flowing within our soul at any given moment.

68% of men and 30% of women who consider themselves Christian view pornography on a consistent basis!

Terry Cu-unjieng of Conquer Series says a national survey among churches conducted over the past five years revealed that 68 percent of Christian men and 50 percent of pastors view pornography regularly. Worse, boys age 11 to 17 reported being its greatest users (1). Morgan Lee of Christianity Today (2) says most pastors have struggled with pornography. A study including 432 pastors and 338 youth pastors commissioned by Josh McDowell’s Ministry and by Campus Crusade for Christ at the April 2016 Set Free summit reported that pastors (57%) and youth pastors (64%) admit they have struggled with porn, either currently or in the past. Overall, 21 percent of youth pastors and 14 percent of pastors admit they currently struggle with using porn. More than 1 in 10 youth pastors (12%) and 1 in 20 pastors (5%) said they’re addicted (Barna report.).

Steve Arterburn (3) believes porn is the greatest threat facing Christians today. He lists the following four reasons why:

  • Porn always gets worse. When a person gets involved in pornography, they are more likely to move into a genre they used to think was detestable or perverse.
  • Porn prevents sanctification. When a person is addicted to pornography, they have lost the desire to be sanctified.
  • Porn kills intimacy. Pornography destroys intimacy with God and one’s spouse.
  • Porn causes impotency. ED drugs are flourishing because of porn.

What’s Going On?

David Kinnaman spoke recently regarding pornography among teens. When they talk about pornography with friends, 89 percent of teens, and 95 percent of young adults say they do so in a neutral, accepting, or encouraging way. Accordingly, only 1 in 20 young adults and 1 in 10 teens say their friends think viewing pornography is a bad thing. Seventy-one percent of adults and 85 percent of teens and young adults who have viewed pornography did so using online videos. Magazines, graphic novels, on-demand videos and cable or rented/purchased DVDs are a very small part of the “market.” More than half of women age 25 and younger seek out porn (56% versus 27% among women 25-plus) and one-third seek it out at least monthly (33% versus just 12% among older men) (4).

The Christian church is in the sexual battle of its life. More than half of youth pastors have had at least one teen come to them for help in dealing with porn in the past 12 months. Ninety-three percent of pastors and 94 percent of youth pastors say it is a much bigger or somewhat bigger problem than it was in the past. At this rate, as young Christians become adults, the Church will be flooded with porn addicts. Pastor James Reeves of City On A Hill Church DFW has successfully tackled porn addiction in his church. He warns, “This problem is going to sweep through the Church like a tsunami wave of destruction and we’re not prepared for it.”

Donna Rice Hughes (5) says, “The continuous invasion of graphic, hard–core online pornography into cultures worldwide has been called the “largest unregulated social experiment in human history” and represents a hidden public health hazard we should not ignore” (6). Witherspoon Institute, in its release of “The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations,” (a multifaceted, multidisciplinary, scholarly review) said pornography, especially via the Internet, harms men, women, and children, and fuels pornography addiction. Chronic viewing of pornography causes the breakdown of marriage and exacerbates sex trafficking. Other peer–reviewed studies have reached similar conclusions.

Remarkably, for over twenty years children have been spoon–fed a steady diet of hard–core pornography online, with little or no barriers to tens of thousands of websites. Any child with Internet access is just a click away from viewing, either intentionally or accidentally, sexually exploitative material. These images range from typical adult pornography to obscene fetishes depicting graphic sex acts, live sex shows, orgies, excretory functions, bestiality, and violence. Hughes writes, “The impact of Internet pornography on adolescents, including compulsive, addictive, and even criminal behavior, is a global trend not isolated to any particular culture or region” (7). Pornography has become one of the greatest global threats to children, marriages, families, and nations. It’s no secret that porn has become mainstream entertainment in our society.

Here are some key facts about online pornography that must be taken seriously (8):

  • Teenage girls are significantly more likely to actively seek out porn than women 25 years old and above.
  • A study of 14- to 19-year-olds found that females who consumed pornographic videos were at a significantly greater likelihood of being victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
  • A 2015 meta-analysis of 22 studies from seven countries found that internationally the consumption of pornography was significantly associated with increases in verbal and physical aggression, among males and females alike.
  • A recent UK survey found that 44 percent of males age 11 to 16 who consumed pornography reported that online pornography gave them ideas about the type of sex they wanted to try.
  • Porn sites receive more regular traffic than Netflix, Amazon, & Twitter combined each month
  • 35 percent of all internet downloads are porn-related.
  • 34 percent of internet users have been exposed to unwanted porn from ads, pop-ups. etc.
  • The teen porn category has topped porn site searches for the last six years.
  • At least 30 percent of all data transferred across the Internet is porn-related.
  • The most common female role stated in porn titles is that of women in their 20’s portraying teenagers.
  • Recorded child sexual exploitation (known as “child porn”) is one of the fastest-growing online businesses.
  • More than 624,000 child porn traders have been discovered online in the U.S.
  • Porn is estimated to be a $97 billion global industry, with about $12 billion of that coming from the U.S.
  • In 2018 alone, more than 5 billion 500 million hours of porn were consumed on the world’s largest porn site.
  • Eleven pornography sites are among the world’s top 300 most popular Internet sites. The most popular porn site outranks the likes of eBay, MSN, and Netflix.
  • “Lesbian” was the most-searched-for Internet porn in 2018.
  • The world’s largest free porn site received over 33 billion site visits during 2018.

Overcoming Sexual Strongholds

David, a man after God’s heart, fell to lust and adultery. Some Bible translations refer to this section of Scripture as “Bathsheba, David’s Greatest Sin” (2 Sam. 11). After viewing Bathsheba sunbathing on an adjacent rooftop, David was unable to cool his desire. Lust and sexual sin invariably lead to destruction. In David’s situation, he slept with Bathsheba, who was married to Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s foot soldiers. Bathsheba conceived a child out of this adulterous affair. Uriah returned from battle. David was quite obsessed with Bathsheba, and she was carrying his child. He sent Uriah back to the front lines, instructing Joab to take Uriah to the forefront of the fighting and abandon him that he might die in battle. A messenger returned to David saying, “Then the archers shot arrows at your servants from the wall, and some of the king’s men died. Moreover, your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead” (2 Sam. 11:24).

Satan’s attacks regarding sexuality have become so outright and blatant that even the Christian church has become desensitized to it. Pastors are failing to address the matter from the pulpit. These heinous acts are being condoned in nearly every church in America. We hear utterances like, “At least I sleep only with my boyfriend,” or “I may not get to order the dish, but there’s no harm in checking out the menu!” This certainly flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27, NRSV).

Ruth Moore writes, “Satan has done a masterful job of shaming those who are caught in sexual strongholds into a continuous cycle of defeat” (9). The devil cannot take our salvation from us, but he does everything he can to steal, kill, and destroy our character, testimony, and effectiveness. One of the more egregious results of habitual sin is internal guilt and shame. Whenever a believer is tethered to immorality, he or she begins to doubt their salvation—their standing as a believer, clothed in the righteousness of Christ. The resulting downward spiral leads to establishment of a stronghold. Paul describes strongholds in 2 Corinthians 10:5: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

Moore says, “A stronghold is anything that exalts itself in our minds, ‘pretending’ to be bigger or more powerful than our God. It steals much of our focus and causes us to feel overpowered. Controlled. Mastered” (10). Whether the stronghold is addiction, unforgiveness, fear, chronic lying, or deep despair over a tragic loss, it is something that consumes so much of our emotions and mental activity that we are cut off from the abundant life we’ve been promised through Jesus Christ. Indeed, pornography is one of the greatest strongholds experienced by Christians today.

An Addiction Like Every Other

Addiction to pornography is real. I know because I’ve been there. Repeated consumption of pornography causes the brain to literally rewire itself. It triggers the brain to pump out chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin), forming new nerve pathways, and leading to profound and lasting changes in the brain. Pornography triggers brain activity in people with compulsive sexual behavior—known commonly as sex addiction—similar to that triggered by drugs in the brains of drug addicts. Studies have shown that porn stimulates the same areas of the brain as addictive drugs, making the brain release the same chemicals. Like drugs, porn triggers pathways in the brain that cause craving, leading users back for more and more extreme “hits” to get high.

There is something deep inside the brain called our reward center. Even the family dog has one. For mammals, it comes as “standard equipment.” The reward center releases pleasure chemicals into our brains whenever we do something positive or healthy, like eating tasty food, doing a hard workout, or enjoying a kiss. The spike of euphoria resulting from this activity feels like a high (a chemical rush) that makes us want to repeat the behavior over and over. Our reward center aids in hard wiring our brains, motivating us to do things that will improve our physical and mental health, leading to an increased chance of survival.

Unfortunately, our brains can be tricked. I have experienced euphoric, pain-free, relaxed sensations through watching pornographic images. During times of severe physical pain, anxiety, or insomnia, I have used porn like a drug, which tends to set pathways in my brain that create addictive behavior. A growing number of sexual images surround us every day in America. Not only is sex used to sell many products, it has become a pervasive commodity in its own right. Countless websites sell sex toys and pornographic images and movies. Today’s teens rate the media as one of their leading sources of sex information (Strasburger, et al., 2010).  

“According to Dr. Victor Cline, a nationally renowned clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual addiction, pornography addiction is a process that undergoes four phases. First, addiction, resulting from early and repeated exposure accompanied by masturbation. Second, escalation, during which the addict requires more frequent porn exposure to achieve the same “highs” and may learn to prefer porn to sexual intercourse. Third, desensitization, during which the addict views as normal what was once considered repulsive or immoral. And finally, the acting-out phase, during which the addict runs an increased risk of making the leap from screen to real life.”

The True Nature of Repentance

As Christians, we already understand that faith and repentance are twin doctrines that cannot be separated. We must believe in Christ penitently. If we repent of habitual sin, we must do so with the intent to do a 180 and change our behavior. We cannot accept the saving grace of God through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and continue in our old, sinful lifestyle. John Calvin defined repentance as, “The true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of Him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit” (11).

Repentance operates within the realm of several key elements. We must have a sense of shame, which leads to a genuine desire to give up habitual, sinful behavior. This should lead to humbling. It is imperative that we avoid attempting to break free from sin under our own power, or thinking we’re “getting it” better than others. Thusly humbled, sorrow and regret should fill our hearts. We must grieve and mourn over our offense, regretting all it has cost us and others. It is critical that our repentance lead to a distaste of sin for what it is. We must cry out as David did: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment” (Psa. 51:3-4).

We must also fully recognize the pardon of God. It is the grace of God that teaches us healthy fear, and the Spirit also relieves our fears! Fully grounded in God’s pardoning grace, we turn to Him for forgiveness and the strength to remain repentant. We learn to see repentance as a gift of the gospel under the New Covenant. Paul says it is the kindness of God that leads us to repent (Rom. 2:4). True repentance is never merely a “sense of regret.” Regretting our sin is only a part of the act of repentance. To truly be repentant, we must turn from our sinful behavior and toward God, without looking back; without going back to the old behavior. Paul describes this as once being in darkness, but now being in the light of the Lord (Eph. 5:8).

Prayer for Overcoming Sexual Strongholds

LORD JESUS, I ____________________, have realized that I am hopelessly enslaved to the sexual stronghold of ____________________, and that I am powerless to save myself. I acknowledge that YOU are the Son of God and you have already paid the debt for my sin. All I need to do is claim it personally. I realize that YOU died for me. You bore every single one of my sins, past, present, and future, when You hung upon the cross. I cannot be good enough to work my way into heaven, nor can I stand against the wiles of the devil under my own power. Come dwell in me, Jesus, through Your Holy Spirit; set me free from this sexual stronghold and allow me to live through Your resurrection onto a new life. Thank You, God, in advance that You will never leave me or forsake me, especially during times of temptation. Amen.

Concluding Remarks

As an industry, pornography has surpassed the bottled water business. Much of what we see today mirrors the out-of-control lifestyle and Hedonism of Rome. Nearly 70 percent of active pastors in the Christian church admit to watching pornography on a regular basis. It is impossible to curb this troublesome trend when the shepherds of the flock are similarly distracted. Viewing pornographic images of women or men for sexual gratification is a sin. As Christ said, merely looking upon another with such prurient interest is the same as having sex with them. In addition, regular viewing of pornographic images prevents Christians from being filled with or guided by the Holy Spirit. Worse, as I’ve learned, it causes the user of porn to believe a false reality, and leads to objectification of people as sex objects.

Whenever a Christian becomes embroiled in pornography, he or she starts being weighed down with guilt and regret. The Holy Spirit convicts believers when they’re acting outside the will of God. Habitual sin dulls our spiritual “ears,” making it harder to break free. This eventually becomes a stronghold. The only way to defeat strongholds is to recognize the sin, then tear it down through the Word of God and prayer. I struggled with this particular issue for decades. It seems to have gone hand-in-hand with substance abuse. It becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees, leading to daily practice of sin. I typically felt “dirty” and weak after indulging in pornography. I’d vow to never do it again, only to fall to the temptation over and over. I found it shocking to learn that my brain chemistry was being affected by habitual porn in the same manner drugs had rewired my brain. 

If you or a loved one is having difficulty staying away from pornography, it’s likely a stronghold has developed. It is just as hard (sometimes) to quit pornography as it is stopping the abuse of drugs or alcohol. The chemical “rewards” are far too great. It is possible to make a conscious decision early on to stay away, but once the habit has become an addiction it can require professional or spiritual guidance to quit. Please consider talking to your pastor or a trusted member of your congregation. If you are having trouble trusting yourself to stop visiting untoward websites, there are several apps or services that can help. I highly recommend Covenant Eyes. In any event, the first step (as with any addiction) is to admit powerlessness over the habit. There is power in the Name of Jesus to break any chain of addiction.

For those of you who do not struggle with this issue, or those who have broken free, please take up the mantle and help other believers in your church or everyday life to achieve victory. Both they and the Body of Christ will be made stronger if you do. God bless and remember: Say No to Satan!

Footnotes

(1) Terry Cu-unjieng, “Why 68% of Christian Men Watch Porn,” Conquer Series (n.d.), URL: https://conquerseries.com/why-68-percent-of-christian-men-watch-porn/

(2) Morgan Lee, “Here’s How 770 Pastors Describe Their Struggle With Porn,” Christianity Today (Jan. 26, 2016), URL: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/january/how-pastors-struggle-porn-phenomenon-josh-mcdowell-barna.html

(3) Steve Arterburn is the founder and chairman of New Life Ministries and host of the #1 nationally syndicated Christian counseling talk show New Life Live!

(4) David Kinnaman, “The Porn Phenomenon,” Barna Research (Fe. 5, 2016), URL: https://www.barna.com/the-porn-phenomenon/#.VqZoN_krIdU

(5) Donna Rice Hughes is a practicing Christian, author, speaker, and Executive Producer and host of the Emmy award–winning three-part TV series Internet Safety 101 on PBS.

(6) Hughes, “The Internet Pornography Pandemic,” in Christian Apologetics Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Charlotte, NC: Southern Evangelical Seminary, 2014), 14.

(7) Hughes, Ibid.

(8) “Mind-Blowing Stats About the Porn Industry and Its Underage Consumers,” on Fight the New Drug (May 30, 2019), URL: https://fightthenewdrug.org/10-porn-stats-that-will-blow-your-mind/

(9) Ruth Moore, Praying God’s Word: Breaking Free from Spiritual Strongholds (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 273.

(10) Moore, 3.

(11) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J.T. McNeill, trans. F.L Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), III.iii.5.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Salvation

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Based on what we read in Grudem’s Systematic Theology and what Scripture says about the topics discussed in Chapter 31 (on salvation), and any other source(s), we were told to identify as specifically as we could where God is responsible (i.e., what God is doing) and where humans are responsible (i.e., what humans are doing) in the following aspects of salvation: election, regeneration, and conversion.

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, RSV).

I found this week’s discussion prompt to be very engaging. Perhaps the most wonderous aspect of the life and death of Jesus on the cross is this thing called “salvation.” As I noted in last week’s discussion, salvation is a rather complex concept. At its simplest definition, it is “deliverance, especially of humanity, from sin’s power and effects.” [1] From a biblical perspective, its root-meaning encompasses “width,” “spaciousness,” “freedom from constraint,” and “deliverance.” The Exodus of the Jews from Egypt is considered “salvation.”

Relative to NT references, salvation (sȏtēria) also indicates deliverance or preservation, with hints of wholeness, soundness, and health. It is clear that much of God’s grace is ongoing and touches on many areas of daily existence, from restraint over runaway evil to inspiring and life-saving creativity; from governmental and other institutions in human society to numerous examples of love and kindness; from the selfless actions of our emergency first-responders to the soldiers who stand between us and our mortal enemies. It is the endless and unmerited grace of God that fuels each of these interventions and benevolent actions. To me, this is definitive proof that He wishes all to prosper and to come to forgiveness.

Grudem says, “Grace restrains sin but does not change anyone’s foundational disposition to sin, nor does it in any significant manner purify fallen human nature or negate the consequences of sin.” [2] So why does God pour out His common grace on undeserving sinners? Perhaps He is demonstrating at least an approximation of the grace that is available through true repentance, wishing that no one should suffer eternal death and damnation. His patient sufferance of our obstinate disobedience serves to give all mankind the opportunity to repent. God wishes to demonstrate His goodness and mercy through the many blessings He bestows to the undeserving. David recognized the compassion God has shown over all He has made. Grudem believes God’s forbearance of judgment testifies to the fact that, clearly, He takes no pleasure in doling out punishment. Ezekiel 33:11: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (italics added).

God wishes man to comprehend His justice. Paul notes that those who consistently resist God’s call to salvation are simply storing up more wrath for themselves, noting that on the day of judgment “every mouth will be stopped” (Rom. 2:5). No one will be able to rightly claim that God has been unfair. Instead, we must recognize the many blessings in the world as evidence of God’s power and wisdom—a continual expression of His abundant grace.

Relative to the order and operation of “salvation,” we are asked this week to look at election, regeneration, and conversion. Specifically, what is God’s responsibility (His “doing”) and what is man’s responsibility (his “function”) in each of these elements of salvation? Of course, I have already delineated some of this above. God is the author and finisher of our salvation. It is His plan (which He ordained before the foundation of the universe) that puts the element of salvation in motion. He fashioned a perfect plan for redemption and provided the incredibly efficacious means for underwriting that plan: the death of His Son Jesus. He remained faithful to that plan and provided opportunities through many institutions for man to recognize the degree of His grace and His love for mankind. Further, His plan and the underlying graciousness that fuels it remained constant. Not once did He change His mind and decide mankind was worthless and without purpose despite the pervasiveness of evil manifested throughout creation. His instructions were simple and concrete. He elected those whom He would save, and He set forth the method for salvation at great cost to Himself—the death of His only begotten Son.

It is at this point that the responsibility changes hands. Man becomes answerable to God relative to the plan of salvation. J.I. Packer describes regeneration (i.e., “new birth”) as an inner recreation of fallen human nature through the power of the Holy Spirit. This new birth necessarily involves renewal effective enough to change a person’s disposition from sin and lawlessness to one of obedience, trust, and love. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, when there is a repentance (a “turning away from”) past rebelliousness, unbelief, and abject disobedience. Regeneration in its simplest definition is when someone moves from the state of being dead in trespasses and sins to being made alive in Christ unto righteousness. God, being rich in mercy and possessing great love for us, makes us “alive” together with Christ, to the extent that He shows us the immeasurable riches of His grace and kindness in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7).

Of course, we have a part in this. There is a decisiveness in our putting on this “new birth.” Assuming we have admitted to our lost state, we must now choose renewal of our spirit. This involves our coming to understand that we’re buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly also be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:4-6). J.I. Packer notes the perfect tense of the verb genan, meaning both “to beget” and “to bear,” which allows us to see our part in responding to God’s saving revelation in Christ. [3]

We can now look at the aspect of conversion and our role in how it works in our lives as new Christians. Admittedly, I once held the opinion that I was “converted” by the Holy Spirit the moment I accepted Christ as my “personal Lord and Savior.” Grudem is clear about what conversion truly entails, stating it is “our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation” (italics added). [4] It involves a spiritual “turn” toward Christ. There is considerable emphasis placed on us relative to conversion. Our will is involved. In other words, it is not simply a “zapping” of our spirit by the Holy Spirit following recitation of a prayer. Conversion is the point at which we consciously repent from our sinful ways. It is here that we make a “180” and walk away from sin as part of our regeneration. This regeneration is made possible through God’s election. All of which, doctrinally, stems from God’s plan for redemption which He ordained before the foundation of the universe.

Specific to conversion, it is critical to realize none of this is based upon simply knowing about it. Grudem states, “Personal saving faith, in the way Scripture understands it, involves more than mere knowledge.” [5] We can know “facts” about God and His Son, but this is simply data. Conversion must be based upon knowing God, not knowing about Him. It entails trusting Jesus as a living person for forgiveness of sins and for eternal life. D.G.Bloesch notes that in evangelical theology, conversion has two elements: it is both divine and human, involving incursion of divine grace and a conscious decision to change our behavior. [6] In fact, Bloesch says we are active in conversion (we become willing) while passive in regeneration. Remember, regeneration is an inner recreation of our fallen human nature through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason we do not merely latch on to salvation; rather, we decide for salvation once our eyes have been opened by God’s grace. Lastly, of course, true conversion includes making Christ Lord over our life.

[1] R.E.O. White, “Salvation,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 768.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 663.

[3] J.I.Packer, “Regeneration,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 734-35.

[4] Wayne Grudem, 709.

[5] Wayne Grudem, 709.

[6] D.G. Bloesch, “Conversion,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology ((Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 212-13.

Why Do Christians Still Sin?

If we really knew God, our behavior would change radically and instantly.

Many Christians are living under half a Gospel. Christ died for our sins. When we pray to receive Him, believing in our heart that He is the Messiah, we die with Him, and are buried with Him. If we leave it there, where is our resurrection? If we do not repent from continual, deliberate sin, do we not act as if His death and resurrection was a worthless gesture? Think of it this way. If you came across a dead man lying along a road and you had the power to save him, what would you do? Give him life? If that is all you did, then he would merely die again one day. You would have to cure the disease that caused him to die in the first place.

The True Definition of a Christian

Regardless of how overused the word Christian has become, the biblical definition of a Christian is one who is a follower of Christ; a disciple of Jesus (see Acts 11:26). A Christian is not merely someone who has ascribed to a particular set of religious beliefs or practices, joined a church, said a penitent prayer, or participated in certain sacraments or rituals. A Christian is a person who has responded to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and has put his or her whole faith in the finished work of the cross of Christ for salvation. Christians have repented of their sin and have made Jesus Lord of their lives. Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV).

We Can’t Deny We Still Sin

The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23a, NIV). Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins. Is the whole Gospel simply curing the disease that caused us to die? Not at all. Finish reading the verse: “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23b). When we forget the entire Gospel, we remain fleshly. We are forgiven yet not redeemed. Sounds strange, right? Almost counter-intuitive. Surely, we’ve been ransomed from the wages of sin by the death of Christ. However, full redemption provides a number of benefits we need in order to live righteously. Redemption provides us with eternal life; forgiveness of sins; a right relationship with God; guidance from the Holy Spirit; adoption into God’s Holy family. When we’re redeemed, we become different people. We are truly alive in Christ. We are now free to choose to live in the Spirit and not in the flesh.

The First Epistle of John was written to Christians. We’re told in 1:8-10, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (NIV). God tells us not to deny that we sin, saying if we do, we’re actually calling Him a liar. Verse 9 indicates what we’re to do when—not if—we sin. He promises to forgive us and cleanse us of the unrighteousness associated with our sin.

1 John 3:9 says, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (NIV) [Italics mine]. These types of seeming contradictions confuse new Christians and drive agnostics and atheists crazy. This, however, is not a contradiction. John’s idea of committing sin on a permanent, habitual basis is further explained in 3 John 1:11: “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God” (NIV).

In 1 John 3:6-9, the apostle is examining the question of whether a person “born of God” can commit sin. In verse 6, he writes, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.” In verse 9, he emphatically shares, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin.” John seems to say it is not possible for those who are really  born again to continue to sin. If that were true, there would not be many genuine Christians. This is not what John means. Remember, every believer still possesses a fallen, sin nature, as well as the indwelling Holy Spirit. This reminds me of the old Cherokee saying that we all possess two wolves inside us. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, truth, compassion, and faith. Which wolf will win the fight? The one you feed.

The correct translation of 1 John 3:8 should be, “The one who practices sin.”

What Does It Mean to “Practice Sin?”

Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (NIV). The Greek word for committing sin (poieo) means to be seen sinning, or to display a sinful behavior. Certainly, this will present a poor witness, making the Christian appear hypocritical. I’ve been there, my friends. Far too many times. I’ve often said, “If I don’t start behaving better in public—stop raging at stupid tailgaters, for example—I’m going to take the Jesus First plate off the front of my car.” The Greek word for practicing sin (prasso) means to perform repeatedly or habitually, and hints of deeds, acts, or using arts. Notice the plurality and repetition here.

In Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, we read the following regarding Hebrews 10:26-31:

The sin here mentioned is a total and final falling away, when men, with a full and fixed will and resolution, despise and reject Christ, the only Saviour; despise and resist the Spirit, the only Sanctifier; and despise and renounce the gospel, the only way of salvation, and the words of eternal life… all this does not in the least mean than any souls who sorrow for sin will be shut out from mercy, or that any will be refused the benefit of Christ’s sacrifice, who are willing to accept these blessings. Him that cometh unto Christ, he will in no wise cast out” (pp. 1212-1213).

The Nature of the Problem

The Bible teaches we are dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) and “were by nature children of wrath” (2:3) [Emphasis added]. In other words, we were born physically alive but spiritually dead. We had no access to God’s presence in our lives, nor knowledge of His ways. We simply lived our lives devoid of God, unless and until someone introduced us to the Gospel. Paul plainly explained, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (NIV).

The flesh can be described as existence apart from God—a life dominated by sin or a drive opposed to God. Obviously, the flesh considers itself self-reliant rather than God-dependent; it is self-centered rather than Christ-centered. Mankind, accordingly, is sinful by nature and spiritually dead. But, at the moment of salvation, God transfers us from the domain of sin and darkness to the Kingdom of His beloved Son (see Colossians 1:13). Additionally, sin’s dominion through the flesh has been broken. As believers, we are no longer in the flesh—we are in Christ. We have to believe that our new identity is in the life of Christ and commit ourselves accordingly.

If you are a new creation in Christ, have you ever wondered why you still think and feel at times the same way you did before? Because everything you learned before you knew Christ is still programmed into your memory. Unfortunately, there is no mental delete button. Surely, this is why Paul says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, NIV) [Emphasis mine]. We have to renew how we think, not delete our old way of thinking.

Concluding Remarks

God’s work of atonement changes us from sinners to saints. No doubt this is a hard concept to comprehend as a new Christian. The radical change—aptly called regeneration—is effected at the moment of salvation. The ongoing change in the believer’s daily walk continues throughout life. The progressive work of sanctification, however, is only fully effective when the radical, inner transformation by regeneration is recognized, accepted, and appropriated by faith.

New believers are dominated by the flesh and deceived by the devil. It takes time and practice to renew the mind and overcome the patterns of the flesh. We have to believe we have a new nature. Our “new self” is oriented toward God. Being a child of God and being free in Christ is positional truth and the birthright of every believer. However, because of a lack of repentance and ignorance of the truth, many believers are not living like liberated children of God. Our freedom from sin’s domination hinges on knowledge of the truth.

Hmm. In other words, the truth will set us free. Where have I heard that before?

 

 

 

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?

GUWG-Heart-Cross

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.

 

Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Part Four)

“But sanctify the LORD God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).

Born Again

What is Conversion?

The word conversion when used in a cultural sense typically means buying into acceptance of a religious dogma or belief system. The fundamental biblical meaning of conversion is “to turn” toward God. The key question always is Am I born again? Exactly when did I get converted? It is typical for new believers to assume conversion is an instantaneous event. Someone gave me a suggestion when they learned I was addressing conversion in my series on apologetics. They said, “Read all four Gospels and try to determine when Peter was converted. Was it when he was following Jesus? When he realized Jesus was the Messiah? When he was sent out to preach and heal? When Jesus forgave him for denying him?” Apparently, it’s just not that clear-cut.

Of course conversion is not simply a shift in our relationship with God. Justification is required before conversion can occur. Romans 1:17 reminds us that the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. It is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Conversion, however, is a much larger reality in which our restored relationship with God begins to touch and change every area of our lives. Justification is not something visible. It is purely a work of the heart. The New Testament speaks of conversion as metanoia, which is literally a change of mind, but is not merely altering your opinion about God. Instead, it is a redirection of your fundamental outlook—what we might call mind-set or worldview. Because it involves a change in affection and will, the very core of self, it is not simply a matter of opinion.

The Bible tells us, “You must be born again” (John 3:7, NIV). Colossians 1:13 states, “For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (NIV).  Christian theology speaks of regeneration, which is the fundamental work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the repentant sinner. This “in or out” language finally appears also in the terminology of contemporary sociology of conversion. But the complexity of this phraseology—of conversion, yes, but also of alteration, transference, renewal, affiliation, adhesion, and other terms for religious moves one might make—points to biblical and theological counterparts indicating there is more to conversion than just “getting it.”

What Are We Converted From and Transformed To?

The apostle Peter taught that one needs to “repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19, NKJV). Many believe conversion is just accepting Jesus into your heart or professing Jesus with your mouth. It is true that many today are testifying to religious experiences in which they met true reality. At first glance, the Christian sounds like everyone else because he is also claiming to have experienced ultimate truth. The unbeliever or casual observer needs more than a mere testimony of subjective experience as a criterion to judge who, if anyone, is right.

Christian conversion is linked inextricably to the person of Jesus Christ. It is rooted in fact, not wishful thinking. Of course, this statement is at the very heart of apologetics. Jesus demonstrated that He had the credentials to be called the Son of God. He challenged men and women to put their faith in Him. Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). When a person puts his faith in Jesus Christ, he enters into a personal relationship with God Almighty, which leads to changes taking place in his life.

It is not a matter of self-improvement or cultural conditioning. Besides the fact that Christian conversion is based upon something objective—the resurrection of Christ—there is also a universality of Christian conversion. Since the date of his death and resurrection, people from every conceivable background, culture, philosophy, and intellectual stance have been converted by the person of Jesus Christ. Some of the vilest individuals who ever walked the face of the Earth have become some of the most remarkable saints after trusting Jesus Christ. This must be considered. Because of the diversity of the people, it cannot be explained away by simple cultural conditioning. Christian experience is universal regardless of culture.

Concluding Remarks

God looks on the heart, the attitude, the intent. As long as one, in his heart, has a real desire to walk in God’s will—is deeply sorrowful for past sins and repents when he commits the occasional sin—and seeks to overcome sin and make God’s way his way, he will be forgiven. But if, following conversion, he is diligent in his Christian life, his occasional sinning will become less and less. He will make solid progress, maturing, overcoming, growing spiritually and in righteous godly character.

The experience of a new Christian —not just knowledge but experience—of who he is and what has happened to him, is profoundly determined by what he knows about the miracle of conversion. That knowledge is based upon Scripture. God ordained that the miracle of the Christian life be powered by his sovereign grace in the soul, but guided and shaped by His Word in the Bible. It important to note that God does not give the joys of conversion through the conversion alone. The fullness of conversion takes place when the new life within intersects with the old word from without.

On a final note, to “convert” is to repent or “turn away from” one thing and toward something new. When one becomes a Christian, he is given the power to essentially do a 180 and go an entirely different way. Conversion is based solely on faith or belief. Christianity is not a religion; rather, it is a relationship with Christ. Christianity is God offering salvation to anyone who believes and trusts the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Conversion is accepting the gift that God offers and beginning a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that results in the forgiveness of sins and eternity in heaven after death.

 

The Law of Willingness

Willingness Will Result in Growth

Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the LORD and not men” (RSV). In Psalm 51:12, David writes, “Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (RSV) [Italics added.] There is the childlike part within all of us that wants to say, “I can do it on my own.” We typically prefer to do things our way. But true recovery begins when we are willing to do it God’s way. This isn’t easy, but without a willingness to be open to God’s plan, we will limit our growth. It all begins with a willing and open heart.

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This is such an obvious law that you might be tempted to skip over it. Don’t! It’s important. A lot of marriages die, a lot of alcoholics and addicts die, and a lot of life missions fail simply because of a lack of willingness. The corollary to this law is equally clear: Without willingness, you either die or kill something. You can either imprison yourself in your futile, self-confident ways of existing, or you can step across the line to initiate healing and growth by being willing to do whatever it takes to change.

Willingness is a mental attitude that helps insure success in recovery from active addiction. This is not always an easy concept to grasp. I’ve often prayed, “God, grant me the willingness to be willing.” Step Three (of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous) says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Practicing Step Three involves opening a door which is closed and locked. All you need is a key and the decision to swing the door open. There is only one key and that’s the key of willingness. The chapter Into Action in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “We have emphasized willingness as being indispensable.” Bill Wilson—co-founder of AA—said, “Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new order of things, were the essential requirements.”

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The dynamic of willingness applies to breaking every sort of obsession, addiction, or bad habit. It applies to every kind of weakness or addiction we face. Willingness opens the door to new paths that lead to growth. Resistance or stubbornness are signs of foolishness and self-delusion. If all we have is a stuck stance, it will stop all forward progress toward growth—with God and with others. In order to get unstuck we must have willingness.

Effective Christian living begins with willingness. God calls the willing, not the able. Moreover, He does not call the qualified; rather, He qualifies the called. We must remember that we’re talking about God’s will, not our own. The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 8:12, “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have” (NIV). God wants willing, wholehearted service. He never forces us to do His will. Even Jesus said, “I seek not my will, but the will of Him that sent me” (John 5:30). Our spirit might be willing, but unfortunately our flesh is weak. Paul said, “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18, NIV). Typically, this is not because of any reluctance on our part. It is simply because weakness of the flesh hampers even our best intentions.

Spirit-Over-Flesh

Sacrifice and willingness go together like ice cream and apple pie. Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service to worship” (NASB). Consider this precept against the backdrop that Jesus gave His body—that is Himself—out of love, as a gift and sacrifice for us. His willingness should serve as an exemplar to be emulated. Christ’s willingness was apparent even before His crucifixion. Philippians 2:6-8 tells us, “Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by being obedient to death—even the death of the cross” (NIV).

Ephesians 3:17 makes it quite clear how willingness is supposed to work: “Christ will make his home in your heart as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.” Why do we dig our heels into the ground when God wants us to sink our roots down into his soil of marvelous, life-giving, strengthening love? There is a big difference between dug-in heels and healthy roots growing deep. But your roots won’t have a chance to grow deep if you’re not willing to trust God, enabling Christ to become more at home in your heart. The more access you give Him to your heart, the more growth you will experience. Paul says, “Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means” (2 Corinthians 8:11, NIV).

The Hebrew word for willingness is the verb-form abah, which means to consent or desire. Ordinary obedience in human behavior is a form of social influence in the face of perceived authority. Interestingly, obedience is different than compliance, which is behavior influenced or coerced by others. This is more like behavior that matches the majority. With this type of obedience, the result is compelled by circumstances. It is worth noting that personality plays an important role in how one responds to authority.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Our very life depends on our willingness to change. Certainly, our eternity hinges on what we do with God’s revealed truth, which leads to eternal life. But head knowledge is not enough. God wants us to act according to what we believe. And He wants us to do so willingly. Through the ages, every true servant of God has preached a message of change. We have always tended to go the way of human nature—the way of vanity, selfishness, hate, lust, and war. Repentance involves a turning away, which includes a willingness to change. Repentance is not merely being sorry for our disobedience. It includes being willing to stop doing what is wrong, do a 180, and go the other way. True repentance involves real change. Willingness ultimately means changing our way of life to conform to the will of God.

 

What is the Gospel?

The Gospels tell the story of the Son of God Who became a human being, lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, was resurrected from the dead, and ascended back to the Father, offering salvation for all who believe in Him. The “good news” of the Gospel is the availability of God’s salvation to everyone who believes. Romans 1:16 says, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (NIV) Not everyone is open to the message, of course, and to some it sounds rather absurd. For me, when I first heard it as a youngster at thirteen, I was able to take it on blind faith. By the time I reached college, I started picking it apart, trying to reason it out and explain it. As Paul said, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Paul summarizes the Gospel message in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you –  unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)

Who is Jesus?

This is the most important question a person could ever ask. We must know Who He is, and the Gospels provide the answer. Herod, who had John the Baptist beheaded, was perplexed by the miracles performed by Jesus and thought He was John raised from the dead. (Luke 9:7-9) Some thought Jesus was Elijah, risen. Christ asked His disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They respond in the same manner as Herod: John the Baptist, Elijah, or perhaps other risen Old Testament prophets. Jesus asks Peter, “But who do you say that I am? Peter answers, “God’s Messiah.” (Luke 9:18-20)(NIV)

The disciples had been rather slow in grasping Who Jesus is, and His earthly ministry was coming to an end. He was about to enter Jerusalem where He would suffer and die. Although Peter’s confession seems sincere, he ultimately denies Jesus three times. Of course, Peter later remembers his conversation with Jesus about His true identity, and it would strengthen him tremendously. Of course, this question is for all of us. Who do we say Jesus is? Do we fully grasp His identity?

What is the Meaning of His Death?

The death of Jesus served several purposes, some of what are interconnected. It was substitutionary He died for our sins in our place so that we will be freed from the death that we deserve. It is atonement for our sins – though we were separated from God through sin, we are now reconciled to Him (Romans 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18-20; Ephesians 2:26; Colossians 1:20, 21), thereby reuniting God and man in a personal relationship; thus the term “at-one-ment.” It is a propitiation one of my favorite terms, meaning appeasement or satisfaction (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10) – and it expiates our guilt. It redeems us. We are ransomed “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19; Mark 10:45; Matthew 20:28), and are forgiven (Colossians 1:14) and delivered from the curse of sin. (Ephesians 1:7)

Through His death we are adopted as children of God, having been born again through faith in Christ (John 1:12), and we are justified, as we are declared legally righteous. (Romans 3:21-26) Charles Spurgeon argues that when God sees saved sinners, He no longer sees sin in them but instead sees His dear Son  Jesus Christ covering us as a veil. “God will never strike a soul through the veil of His Son’s sacrifice,” says Spurgeon. “He accepts us because He cannot but accept His Son, who has become our covering.”

The Reality of His Resurrection.

Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) The Christian message that Jesus conquered Satan, sin, and death is not allegorical. As expressed in Genesis 3:15, Jesus allowed Satan to “strike His heal” by voluntarily dying on the cross, but in the very process of dying (and being resurrected), Jesus “crushed [Satan’s] head,” thereby defeating Satan, sin, and death. It’s been said by William Romaine, evangelical author and minister of the Church of England in the mid- to late 1700s, that “Death stung himself to death when he stung Christ.” You might recall that the honey bee, when it stings, cannot retract its stinger, thereby tearing out part of its digestive tract, leading to its death. In this regard, the honey bee sacrifices itself in defense of the hive.

Christ’s resurrection consummates God’s salvation plan for mankind. The historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection is pivotal to Christianity. Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17-19)(NIV)

A Call to Repent.

Repentance is not a separate requirement for salvation. We are saved through faith alone, but repentance goes hand-in-hand with believing. Faith and repentance must be seen as marriage partners and never separated. Repentance is a change of attitude and action from sin toward obedience to God. The Greek word for repentance (metanoó) literally means “I change my mind.” I’ve heard it described as a turning away from or doing a 180. This is a big issue for me. Presently, I am at a crossroads where I am finally ready to be obedient to God. Repentance signifies a person attaining a divinely provided new understanding of his or her behavior, and feeling compelled to change and begin a new relationship with God. Hebrews 6:1 says, “Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death.” (NIV) Walter Elwell, noted evangelical author, declares that repentance is “literally a change of mind, not about individual plans, intentions, or beliefs, but rather a change in the whole personality from a sinful course of action to God.”

A Call to Believe.

To believe in Jesus Christ requires more than mere intellectual assent that He is the Son of God. Saving faith is not merely accepting certain propositions as true. After all, even the demons believe and shudder. (James 2:19) I had a sponsor in my 12-step program say to me, “I hope one day you get God from your mind to your heart.” At first, I was offended. How dare you question my commitment to God? Yet my behavior was nowhere consistent with the Christian worldview I claimed to hold true to my heart.Indeed, I needed to stop thinking about God and start living God.

A call to believe involves trusting in Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins. It involves an act of the will. Personally, I have come to believe that our will resides in our heart and not in our mind. We have to see it as a faith-union with Christ, in which we cleave to our Savior. We need only believe in Christ for our eternal salvation. Nothing else is required. The Bible is clear on this. When the Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, they respond, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved – and your household.” (Acts 16:30-31) We cannot earn our way to salvation. This plagued Martin Luther as a young monk. He wrestled with Romans 1:17 for months, lying awake at night, convinced he could never attain the righteous needed to live by faith. He constantly confessed his sins, fearful he’d left something out and would not be forgiven. He practiced self-sacrifice in order to “earn” God’s favor. His epiphany came when he realized God’s righteousness is not acquired by works but by belief.

Salvation is a gift from God. Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves. It is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (NIV)

My hope is that you have found salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. If you have not made that step, but are ready to do so, here is a simple prayer you can say right now:

Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I know that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. No longer will I close the door when I hear you knocking. By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. I am ready to trust you as my Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and be my Savior. Amen.

God bless.

Steven Barto