Let’s Go to Theology Class! Week Four

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

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

IT’S ONE THING TO pick up a book and read about theology. And that’s okay. It’s how I got interested in taking the subject on as a graduate student. It all starts with contemplation. We “think” about what it means to be alive, to have purpose. We wonder how we might make a difference in society. We question the “logic” of believing in God. Armed with such a burning desire to know, I enrolled in a master’s program in theology and started out on what so far has proved to be an amazing, breathtaking journey.

In week four of my theology class we considered the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action. Further, we discussed the type of character most conducive to theological insight, and how the systematic study of theology should impact one’s character. Generic “theological” study does not necessarily require any degree of sanctification. Many people choose to study theology or philosophy without any sense of what is meant by redemption or sanctification. These concepts are, however, imperative in Christian theology.

What is the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action?

I was amazed how little I understood about sanctification over the years. I thought it “just happened” when I “got saved.” Considering the decades of sinful behavior and active addiction I went through after accepting Christ (at age 13), I was far from sanctified. Of course, it does start with salvation. When we become redeemed, we are expected to “repent” of our old life. Then sanctification can begin. According to R.E.O. White, sanctification means “to make holy.” [1] It’s not uncommon for a new Christian to think this means he or she is made holy (shazam!) all at once. White further explains that to be sanctified is to be “set apart” from common or secular use.

First Corinthians 1:2 says we are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. R.E.O. White writes that sanctification is not merely justification’s endgame; rather, it is justifying faith at work. The new believer is declared to be acquitted and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Through sanctification, God begins to accomplish His will in us. This is often called becoming spiritually mature. We are not saved by good works, but there is little hope of sanctification without submitting to the will of God.

Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae [2] that four of the gifts of the Spirit of the Lord are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel, and that these gifts have a direct impact on the intellect. Isaiah 11:2 says. “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (RSV). David Jeremiah explains that the coming king “will be endowed with the Spirit of the Lord, who provides the wisdom, ability, and allegiance to God that are necessary to accomplish a challenging task.” [3] Proverbs 2:6 says, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” James reminds us that if we lack wisdom in any circumstance, we are to ask God and He will give it (James 1:5). Thomas Aquinas said any discourse of reason always begins from an understanding. It is critical, therefore, that we never attempt theology while lacking understanding. Although the work of the Spirit is already completed relative to the compiling of Scripture, His work regarding “illumination” is ongoing.

Prayer is the means by which we gain access to God. Just as we speak to the Father, and call upon Jesus, we must request from the Holy Spirit the guidance, understanding, knowledge, illumination, and discernment needed to effectively and accurately undertake systematic theology. It is equally important to pray for guidance regarding God’s call on our lives. When I decided to change my major from the master’s in counseling program to the master’s in theology, I spent weeks in prayer. I consulted with my pastor, several lay ministry friends, family members, my CCU student advisor, two professors, and several elders at my church. I cannot fathom undertaking a systematic study of Christian theology without prayer.

What type of character is most conducive to theological insight, and how should it change as the result of undertaking theological study?

In any theological undertaking, one would expect there to be a change of character. I think of Nabeel Qureshi (1983-2017), author, speaker, lecturer, and apologist, who converted to Christianity from Islam after spending nearly two years conducting an exegetical study of the Holy Bible. His character, if you will, was that of a loving, dedicated, well-behaved young man who had been raised in a religious home. In fact, no one in his immediate or extended family were extremists or jihadists. He loved the Qur’an, Allah, and his messenger Muhammad. This “character” coupled with a sharp intellect likely contributed to his willingness to examine the theology of Islam, and, ultimately, compare it to Christianity.

Tradition injects a lot into character, and, when that character matures, one becomes curious about tradition, religion, politics, culture, the meaning of life, and so on. Qureshi said one of the greatest hardships he faced was having to inform his parents he had become a Christian. He was, after all, part of a “community of believers” that were bonded together by solid theological principles and deep-seated tradition. He believed in Islam. He revered Muhammad. Regardless, once he met Jesus Christ, he could no longer reject Him than he could make himself stop breathing. This is precisely the type of character it requires to begin a theological study.

Insight comes from honest, rigorous, open-minded, and thorough study. We’ve been told that theology is in its simplest form “the study of God.” For me, the desire to know God stems from my burning desire to know why my earthly father seemed to hate me so much and, more frighteningly, whether my Heavenly Father was as mean-spirited, vindictive, nasty, judging, and punishing. (Incidentally, I eventually learned that my dad did not hate me, and he did the best he could to keep me from running off the rails and into the gutter.)

If God were to be “the same as” my dad, I would have no time for Him. Regardless, somewhere deep inside, I wanted to know several things. First, exactly who or what was this Christian God I’d heard of at church? Second, was He authoritative—leading from a position of authority and strength, love and longsuffering—or authoritarian—ruling over everyone with a heavenly despotic fist, ready to accuse and condemn? Third, was it true, as my father said many times, that I was worthless, or was there hope that my life had some greater meaning?

As to what type of character should result from theological study, Trevor Hart said, “Faith is not a natural progression from knowledge or experiences available to all, but results from a special dispensation which sets us in the perspective from which the truth may be seen, and demands a response” [4] [italics mine]. In other words, deciding to systematically study Christian theology is both a soulful drive or ambition and a rigorous discipline. I have gone through numerous personal changes as an undergraduate student of psychology at Colorado Christian University. I believe those changes set the stage for my choosing to take on a master’s level study of theology. There is a progression at play. Had I not first chosen to return to college, I would not have discovered CCU; had I not enrolled at CCU, I would not be the Christian I am today; and, had I not grown more mature in Christ as an undergraduate, I would not have undergone the requisite changes conducive to undertaking a master’s degree in theology.

This is the fourth week of my first theology class, and already I feel tectonic shifts within me. My personality has brightened, and my mind has cleared. I am ravenous for information about theology, Christology, eschatology, and apologetics. I see people as God sees them, and I’ve begun to feel a heartache for those who will never see the truth about the life, love, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have started to keep my promises more consistently than I used to, and I exercise greater control over my tongue (which was no easy task!). I even noticed a major change in the amount of television I watch. All of that notwithstanding, I find myself asking God every morning to put a task before me; to lead me where He needs me to go; to break my heart for what breaks His.

Footnotes

[1] R.E.O. White. “Sanctification.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 770

[2] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae, I.II, q. 68, a1

[3] David Jeremiah. The Jeremiah Study Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2013), 893-94.

[4] Trevor Hart. Faith Thinking. (Eugene:Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995), 75.

 

 

Jesus Said, “It is Finished.”

“After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished he said [in order to fulfill the scripture], ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:28-30, NRSV).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

TYPICALLY, WHEN WE HAVE completed a “project” or task, we say, “It is finished!” That which we set out to do has been completed. We followed the written instructions (hopefully to the letter); we sought advice when needed, and most likely adhered to it. We stood back, realizing there was nothing else to be done. Our project was completed.

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“It is finished” is perhaps one of the most quoted verses in the Bible. I know atheists, agnostics, philosophy professors, car mechanics, surgeons, gardeners, school teachers, retail sales clerks, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and humanists who are familiar with the verse. They know Who said it, when it was said, and some even know where to find the verse in Scripture. Yet very few know what it means—especially its scope. Perhaps more sadly, there are those who know what it means, and grasp its comprehensive meaning, yet fail to live out the truth of its significance.

Pontius Pilate

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At the beginning of John 19, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the fifth prefect (governor) of the Roman province of Judaea, serving under Emperor Tiberius. It is important to understand that Pilate was not well liked by the Jews. This is likely because he hung worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem and had coins bearing pagan religious symbols minted. Pilate essentially helped create a “cult of personality” of the emperor. The Jews had strong objections to Pilate’s customs, especially executing men accused of crimes without the benefit of a trial or to face the charges lodged against them.

The First Century historian Josephus called Pilate a headstrong strict authoritarian Roman leader who, although both rational and practical, never knew how far he should go in a given case. He provoked both Jews and Samaritans to riot. Josephus tells us that “in order to abolish Jewish laws,” and with the intent of diminishing privileges Jews had hitherto enjoyed, Pilate ordered his troops to encamp in Jerusalem and sent them into the city with images of the emperor attached to their ensigns. This practice violated the Torah’s prohibition of graven images and desecrated the Temple by the presence of pagan cult objects on the Temple hill.

The New Testament suggests that Pilate had a weak, vacillating personality. Could he have at least postponed the death of Christ if he stood his ground, making an official proclamation of “innocent?” Pilate weakly capitulated even though he found no fault in Jesus. He said to the mob, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him (John 19:4, NRSV). Pilate’s wife sent him word of a revelation she had about Jesus, urging Pilate to “…have nothing do do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Matthew 27:19, NRSV). Pilate again appealed to the crowd, arguing that he could find no fault in Jesus. The Jews answered, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7). In any event, Pilate was but a cog in God’s plan for the redemption of mankind.

This frightened Pilate to the point that he returned to his court room and asked Jesus, where he was from (v. 8), but Jesus would not answer. Pilate then said, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you” (v. 10). Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (v. 11). Pilate finally capitulated. He brought Jesus before the crowd and said, “Here is your King! Shall I crucify [Him]? The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then Pilate handed Christ over to the mob to be executed (v. 14-16).

Let’s take a moment to review the etymology of the word crucifixion. Its origin rests solely with the Latin phrase crux, meaning a tree or any wooden structure used to execute criminals. In the Greek, the most common term is stauroo (σταυρόω), meaning “to crucify.” It occurs 43 times in the New Testament. The word excruciating—a word often used to express the most severe pain possible based on the “pain scale” we’ve all heard when asked by a doctor or nurse to rate our pain on a scale of 0 to 10—also has Latin roots. It is based on the term crux, and includes the term cruciāre, which means torment or torture. Some synonyms for excruciating include unbearable, insufferable, unendurable, agonizing, and racking.

The trial of Jesus violated traditional, official Jewish & Roman jurisprudence for capital crimes, procedures, & protocol, ending with an unlawful sentence & subsequent execution by crucifixion.

The Crucifixion

After His arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane under cover of darkness, Jesus endured six separate trials or hearings (three by the Sanhedrin and three by the Romans). In response to the mob’s insistence, Pilate released Jesus to them to be murdered for claiming to be “King” of the Jews. He underwent scourging, mocking, and horrendous beatings.

Dr. C. Truman Davis, a Christian medical doctor who is affiliated with CBN, felt compelled to apply his medical knowledge to the physical effects crucifixion had on the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Fair warning: This is an account of most horrific acts against  our Savior. I was brought to tears several times while recounting them here. Dr. Davis’s description brings to mind the major motion picture The Passion of the Christ.

The physical passion of Jesus actually began in the Garden of Gethsemane. Of the many aspects of His unimaginable sufferings, the one of greatest physiological interest is when He sweat droplets of blood. It is interesting that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible states, “…other ancient authorities insert add 44, And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:44). Modern skeptics have tried to discredit this account under the mistaken impression that this is simply not medically possible. However, medical literature has documented the rare phenomenon hematidrosis, or “bloody sweat.” You can read about this condition at Medical News Today. Under great emotional stress—such as the kind Jesus suffered—tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, causing blood to mix with sweat. This can cause pronounced weakness and possible shock.

Preparations for the scourging of Jesus were carried out when He was stripped naked and His hands were tied to a post above His head. It is doubtful the Romans followed the Jewish law of limiting a whipping to no more than forty lashes. The Roman legionnaire stepped toward Jesus with the flagrum (or flagellum) in his hand—a short whip consisting of several heavy, leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the ends of each. The heavy whip was brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’s shoulders, back, and legs. At first, the thongs cut Jesus’s skin only. But as the blows continued, the thongs cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and ultimately a spurting of arterial blood from vessels in the underlying muscles. The initial blows produced large, deep bruises which were broken open by each subsequent blow. Finally the skin began to hang from Jesus’s back in long ribbons. The trauma left the affected areas unrecognizable. When the centurion determined Jesus was near death, the beating was stopped. Jesus was untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, soaked in His own blood.

The Roman soldiers are not done yet. They saw an opportunity for mockery. Because Jesus was accused of claiming to be King of the Jews, the soldiers threw a robe across His shoulders and placed a “stick” in His hand to represent a scepter. Still, a “king” needs a crown. Flexible branches covered with long thorns (commonly used in bundles for firewood) were plaited into the shape of a crown and it was pressed into Jesus’s scalp. There was a lot of blood loss due to the scalp being one of the most vascular areas of the body. After mocking Him and striking Him across the face, the soldiers took the stick from His hand and struck Him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into His scalp. Finally, exhausted from their sadistic beating, the robe was torn from His back; having adhered to the clots of blood and serum in Jesus’s open wounds, this caused Him great pain. In deference to Jewish custom, the Romans returned His garments. The heavy patibulum of the cross was tied across His shoulders, and the procession of the condemned Christ, two thieves, and the execution detail of Roman soldiers began its slow journey to a hill near Jerusalem called gulgulta in Latin, meaning “place of the skull,” seemingly because of its skull-like shape.

In spite of His best efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy wooden beam, together with the shock produced by copious blood loss, was too much for Jesus. He was, after all, in a human body. He stumbled and fell. The rough wood of the beam gouged into His lacerated skin and muscles across His shoulders. He tried to rise, but his body had been pushed beyond its endurance. A centurion, anxious to get on with the crucifixion, selected an onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross. Jesus followed, still bleeding and sweating and in a state of shock—a 650-yard journey from the fortress Antonia to Golgotha is finally completed.

Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild painkiller. He refused to drink it. Simon was ordered to place the patibulum on the ground and Jesus was violently thrown backward with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire found the depression at the front of the wrist( between the radius and ulna). He drove a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. He did the same to the other wrist. The patibulum was lifted in place at the top. A plaque reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” was nailed above Jesus’s head. Jesus’s left foot was pressed backward against His right foot. With with both feet extended, toes down, a nail was driven through the arch of each foot, leaving the knees moderately flexed. Jesus is now crucified. As He slowly sagged down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating pain shot along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain—the nails in His wrists were putting pressure on the medial nerves.

As Jesus pushed Himself upward to avoid stretching torment, He placed His full weight on the nail that had been driven through His feet. This caused tremendous pain. His arms fatigued, causing great waves of cramps to sweep over His muscles, causing spasms. Eventually, His muscles were so severely cramped that He could no longer push Himself upward. Hanging by his arms, His pectoral and intercostal muscles became paralyzed. He was no longer able to exhale. Carbon dioxide built up in His lungs, coursing through His bloodstream.

Jesus experienced hours of horrific pain, cycles of joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, and burning pain where tissue was torn from His lacerated back as He moved up and down attempting to breath. He began to experience a terrible crushing discomfort deep inside His chest as the pericardium slowly filled with serum, compressing His heart.  It was almost over. The loss of tissue fluids had reached a critical level; His compressed heart was struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into His muscles. His tortured lungs were making a frantic effort to gasp gulps of air. His tissues were severely dehydrated, sending pain signals to His brain.

Jesus’s body was now extremely ravaged. He could feel the chill of death creeping through His body. This realization brought Him to express, “It is finished.” His mission of atonement had been accomplished. He could finally allow His body to die. With one last surge of strength, he once again pressed His torn feet against the nail, straightened His legs, took a deep breath, and said, “Father! Into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

“It is Finished.”

Found only in the Gospel of John, the Greek word translated “it is finished” is tetelestai, an accounting term that means “paid in full.” When Jesus uttered those words, He declared the debt owed to His Father due to man’s sin wiped away. He died to pay our debt. Certainly, the full meaning of Jesus’s life and ministry had to culminate in His crucifixion. Through His resurrection, that ministry continues to this day. Paul astutely said, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14, RSV).

It’s been said that just before He died Jesus looked back over His life’s work, and, knowing that His mission was accomplished, summoned Death. He departed His body and went to be with the Father. There is something in Jesus’s dying declaration that has a much deeper meaning than the utterance of a man on his death bed indicating he has come to the end of his journey. Jesus’s dying remark indicates there are no loose ends left, no unfinished tasks dropped from His hands to be taken up and carried on by others. His life is a rounded whole, with everything accomplished that had been endeavored, and everything done that had been commanded. Jesus laid the foundation of salvation by the laying down of His life.

Henry (1997) writes,

“It is finished; that is, the counsels of the Father concerning [Jesus’s] sufferings were now fulfilled. It is finished; all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament, which pointed at the sufferings of the Messiah, were accomplished. It is finished; the ceremonial law is abolished; the substance is now come, and all the shadows are done away. It is finished; an end is made of transgression by bringing in an everlasting righteousness. His sufferings were now finished, both those of his soul, and those of his body. It is finished; the work of man’s redemption and salvation is now completed. His life was not taken from him by force, but freely given up” (p. 1014-1015).

Matthew 19:28: “After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill Scripture), ‘I thirst'” (RSV). There is an interesting interpretation that when Jesus said those words He was speaking of a “spiritual” thirst—a need to return to His Father. This sits well with the synoptic gospels: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me'” (Matthew 27:46, RSV). This verse in Matthew refers to Psalm 22:1:”My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Kidner (1971) calls this “The Psalm of the Cross.” No Christian  can read Psalm 22:1 without being vividly confronted with the crucifixion. It is not only a matter of prophecy fulfilled, but of the sufferer’s abject humility—there is no plea for vengeance, as Jesus certainly would not have intended. Kidner notes, “The Gelineau translation entitles it “The suffering servant wins the deliverance of the nations.” In fact, A. Bentzen ( 1955) points out, “it is not a description of illness, but of an execution” (p. 94, n. 40).

You may recall Jesus’s cry to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39, RSV). I believe Jesus was not asking God to “pardon” Him or take away the need for His death. Rather, I believe Jesus foresaw the wrath of God that the Father would justly and rightly pour out upon mankind for their sins. Jesus asked if it were possible that this cup of wrath might pass from Him. That He might not have to “drink” from it. Nevertheless, He was willing to bear the load of His sufferings (to the fullest extent required by the Father) in order that you and I could escape the bitter, dark, lonely, horrific consequences of our sin. Matthew 26:42 says, “Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.'” Jesus was willing to suffer complete and utter abandonment of the Father in order that we might walk with the Father for eternity clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

How Does This Apply to Us?

The last words of Jesus have a deep and eternal meaning. I have no doubt that Jesus knew what His last words needed to be and He knew the power those final words would have for generations still to come. He had great purpose in them, which still breathe such life and meaning for our lives today. Jesus became the final and ultimate sacrifice for our sin. The word in this verse, finished, means “paid in full.” The uniqueness of the wording is in the verb tense: it indicates both a point in time when it was initially accomplished and that it would continue to be complete or finished. This is what Christ came to do. This is the Good News. He came to firmly establish God’s plan for redemption that had been ordained before the foundation of the world. We read in 1 Peter 1:3 that by Jesus’s great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Verse 9 says, “As the outcome of your faith, you obtain the salvation of your souls” (RSV).

Peter tells us to gird up our minds, be sober, set our hope fully upon the grace that is coming to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ. We are to turn from our childish ways, no longer conforming to the passions of our former ignorance. Rather, we are to be holy as Christ is holy! He adds, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake… You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:18-20, 23, RSV).

In closing, I can only hope that you have felt in your heart the unbelievable sacrifice Jesus bore for you and for me; that you can spend even a moment imagining how horrific and excruciating His death was, and that He went through it in total obedience to the Father, lifted up on the wings of His glorious and unfathomable love for you and me. And perhaps, if even for a moment, the next time you step outside of the way of Jesus you will feel so severely convicted that you will stop in your tracks and thank Him for the power He has given us all to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. Further, I hope you are as changed through reading this post as I have been while writing it.

As a faithful brother in Christ loves to say, “Change me LORD, never to be the same again!”

References

Bentzen, Aage. King and Messiah. Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth Press, 1955.

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

Kidner, Derek. Kidner Classic Commentaries: Psalms 1-72. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971

 

Repent, Believe, Follow

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

I WANT TO HAVE A CONVERSATION about what it means to truly follow the way of Jesus. There are, unfortunately, nearly as many explanations of this critical theology as there are people who believe in it. Certainly, this is not what Jesus intended to happen in the Body of Christ. We see this in the numerous denominations, dogmas, philosophies, and factions present in the church today. Admittedly, most believers are making an honest attempt at presenting Jesus in a manner that attracts non-believers to Him. There is, however, a percentage of ministers and laypersons whose focus is on culture rather than Jesus.

Some in the ministry believe the best way to attract others to Jesus is to downplay the ugly side of His ministry: the wrath of God, the wages of sin, the nature of a fallen world, the dark side of the human heart. They think that zeroing in on these vitally important doctrines will cause new believers to lose heart, and block non-believers from coming in from the cold to hear the truth. Instead of shouting the truth of the Gospel from the mountaintop, they create “warm and fuzzy” messages, start coffee clatches at church, and ply the common man with “lights and music.” They create an atmosphere of pageantry, of pomp and circumstance, rather than proclaiming critical points of doctrine.

Truly, this is a matter of spirituality—how we go about following Jesus in word and in deed. The way of Jesus is about loving and saving the world. It is personal, not disembodied, abstract, convoluted, fleshly. Many churches in the United States today are glaringly impersonal: programs, organizations, discussion panels, techniques, general guidelines—about information rather than knowledge. For me, accumulation of information is not synonymous with the acquiring of knowledge. Facts don’t lead to change. Knowledge does.

Many who consider themselves “followers” of Jesus today seem to embrace the ways of their surrounding culture as they go about their daily living “in the Name of Jesus.” This is quite dangerous. It is as if they are going along with the world at work, at school, in the marketplace, while espousing the way of Jesus only while at church or in the company of other believers. It is as if they see Christianity as a religion and not a relationship. In other words, many are Christians in name only. They are “fans” of Christ, but not “followers.” Personally, this is a fairly recent change for me that came about through humility and complete honesty. It is a critical prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Christ.

Jesus presents us with a different way; one that is separate from the world, not a supplement to it. It is grounded in a personal relationship that can only grow through true repentance. Ah, but what does the word repentance really mean? If you want to discover an interesting but troubling truth about most mainstream Christians today, ask them to explain what it means to repent. Some will tell you it means reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. They believe it simply means saying to God, I am sorry. Please forgive me! But a literal translation of the Greek μετάνοια (“metanoia”) indicates a transformational change of the heart. It involves turning away from a life of sin and not going back. It’s “doing a 180.”

Jeremiah 35:15 says, “I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me” (RSV) [Italics mine]. Personally, I did not take this step for decades. Typically, I made a profession of faith, but acted in a manner that was not consistent with my profession. In the vernacular, I “talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.” And isn’t the way of Jesus in reality a walk?

In essence, failing to walk out our profession of faith is wrong thinking and wrong living. One of the most stinging rebukes I’ve experienced was when my younger brother said, “I can’t stand you and I don’t trust you. You are nothing but a hypocrite!” Ouch! At the time, my reaction was one of anger. But my brother was right. I understood the what of following Jesus, but I had yet to practice the how. I was living a fleshly life like the rest of the world. My behavior was chock full of justification—ruled by anxiety, depression, selfishness, and chronic pain. My defense mechanisms, despite holding an undergraduate degree in psychology, included denial, rationalization, and projection. I justified my behavior because of how others had behaved toward me.

These excuses are ways of the flesh, involving coping strategies common to culture but not a proper part of the way of Jesus. Much of these mechanisms are terribly destructive. They are highly ineffective in promoting lasting interpersonal relationships. I know this because of the impact they’ve had on my life—divorce, loss of numerous jobs, no true close friends, estrangement from my family. Such behaviors are often useful in getting ahead in a secular world (albeit with considerable negative consequences relative to human connection), but not in the community of Jesus. They frustrate any attempt to become part of the Kingdom of God.

The Jesus Way

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Take a second look at what you just read. He said He is the way, sure, but He didn’t stop there. He also said He is the truth and the life. This statement is made up of three distinct parts. To ascribe to one of these three concepts is to invite failure in our Christian walk. The Jesus way is predicated upon to the truth He gave us about the life we can have through Him. Follow me for a minute here. Merely having information about Christianity (the way) will not produce truth in our everyday activities. Consequently, we will never achieve the life we can have in Him. Reading about the life we can have in Jesus is useful only in a “quiz bowl” competition on the Bible. We’ll get the question right, but we will miss the means by which we can come to know the truth about the information, and, therefore, live in a manner that is victorious.

In other words, the Gospel gets only partial attention in our churches today. The concept of Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among Christians today. This is because we don’t always hear the entire truth. Jesus, in His statement we read in John 14:6, sets out in plain language that the way comes first. We cannot know the truth, and then appreciate and live the life, without first entering into the way. This crucial step can’t be skipped if we are to become disciples of Christ. The way of Jesus is the only means by which we can obtain the ability to practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus Christ. This involves living Jesus seven days a week—in our homes and workplaces, at school and in the marketplace—not just on Sunday!

This is how the “local” church (our part in the Body of Christ) demonstrates the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus. We are told to leave everything behind, take up our cross (personal sacrifices needed for complete service), and follow Him. But what does it mean to follow Him? What do we need to give up in order to make this commitment real for us? I believe Jesus was stating an imperative: in order to follow Him we must live an authentic, committed life for Him and through Him. The beautiful life Jesus lived—marked by a passionate love for and unwavering obedience to God and a compassion for people—must be learned and practiced. It must not be theoretical (head knowledge); instead, it must be demonstrated through action (heart knowledge). We cannot live like Jesus without following Jesus.

More Than Mere Consumers

It seems the American way is the way of consumerism. I am not casting aspersions on our wonderful system of democracy, nor am I putting down the idea of open markets, free enterprise, and equal opportunity for success. Our country needs to return to the concept of providing equal access for obtaining an education and earning a fair living. These are, without a doubt, opportunities that are unique to the United States. Further, this is completely different from wealth. Equal opportunity leads to a level playing field for the accumulation of wealth. Opportunity begets wealth. It is not proper to take wealth from those who have obtained it and give it (without merit) to those who have not worked for it.

Perhaps this is why many of our churches today seem to be churches of consumerism. It is not appropriate, however, to market our churches in the same way we market and promote goods and services. When we approach “church” in this manner, we risk getting off message. This is typically not an intentional diversion. Rather, it is a symptom of using the wrong message (indeed, the wrong mechanism) for growing our congregations. It puts emphasis on “congregation” (the size of a church’s membership) rather than on the Body of Christ. Congregation is not the same thing as church.

Today’s churches, especially the so-called mega-churches, increase membership through marketing. Leaders of these types of congregations believe the quickest and most effective way to get people to come to services is to identify what they want and give it to them—satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the Gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, warm feelings, and the like. I see this specifically as a problem with the ministry of Joel Osteen. He promotes “the best life now,” saying, “everyday is Friday” (whatever that means), and tells his followers they need only stop seeing themselves as sinners, losers, damaged goods, hopeless and helpless. It’s not the concept that’s wrong; it’s the approach. This method leaves sin and repentance out of the message. Whenever we water down the Gospel, making it less harsh (in other words, more “palatable”), we step out of the way of Jesus.

The End of Me

“Follow me” is one of the greatest commands spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry (see Mark 1:17). This statement, however, is preceded by the commands repent and believe (see verse 15). The Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, He is the Kingdom. It is what Jesus revealed in His ministry. Our access to the Kingdom can only be obtained through repentance—a decision to leave one way of life (one reality) and enter another. It requires a complete change of mind and heart. In my own experience, I was unable to appreciate any victory over sin (especially over active addiction) until I came to believe, completely and entirely, that there is only one way to achieve it: the way of Jesus. My hope is you are able to grasp this sooner rather than later. It will revolutionize your life.

This requires what Kyle Idleman (2015) calls coming to “the end of me.” But what does this mean? In a nutshell, it means “death is life.” The Bible says life’s real prize is hidden. We have to know where to look for it. Paul wrote, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3, RSV). It indicates that to live the life that is hidden in Christ we must first die to ourselves. Jesus made this clear when He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14, RSV).

Idleman writes, “Death is nobody’s favorite word. We tiptoe around it with nicer names. Someone passed on. They’ve gone ahead. They crossed the river” (p. 194). He says we tend to do whatever we can to live in denial of our eventual death. Perhaps you’ve heard the lyrics from Joe Diffie: “Well I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead… prop me up beside the jukebox if I die, Lord I want to go to heaven, but I don’t want to go tonight.”

Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26, RSV). Jesus was not speaking of our physical (literal) death, but was speaking of a spiritual reorientation of our focus. To die to self is to set aside what we want and focus instead on loving God with everything we’ve got and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39). This moves us away from self-centeredness and closer to becoming openhearted followers of Christ who care deeply for others. We cannot serve God or others while enamored with ourselves.

Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, RSV). Focusing on ourselves is easy. It’s what we all do in the flesh. It’s part of our fallen nature. The moment Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit, they put self-knowledge ahead of fellowship with God. As a result, their walk with the Father was forever changed. It is only through adhering to the command of Jesus to follow Him that we can ever hope to put God and our fellow man ahead of ourselves. This concept is, as I stated at the beginning of this article, found only through repenting (turning away from self and our sinful ways), believing that Jesus is the way to the Kingdom of God, and following Him.

True (spiritual) life is found only through the laying down of our physical (carnal) life. We are not wired to turn from our physical world and embrace the metaphysical. Indeed, we cannot grasp spiritual concepts merely by thinking about them. We can begin by taking steps each day to surrender. We cannot hope to comprehend the way of Jesus without denying ourselves. Jesus said, plainly and simply, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, RSV).

Jesus is our way to God. Moreover, Jesus is God’s way to us. God comes to us in Jesus, speaking the words of salvation. Those words necessarily begin with one simple but crucial step: repentance.

References

Idleman, K. (2015). The End of Me: Where Real Life in the Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publications.

Perdew, Baylock, R., and Phillips, K. (1993). Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die) [Joe Diffie]. On Honky Tonk Attitude [CD recording]. New York, NY: Epic Records

God’s Grace Teaching Us

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

Man Kneeling

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

GOD’S GRACE OFFERS US SALVATION AND JUSTIFICATION

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

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

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

GOD’S GRACE [ALSO] TEACHES US

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUDING REMARKS

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

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

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

References

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

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

 

 

Justification versus Sanctification

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Justification and sanctification are not the same thing. The basic dictionary definition of justification is “the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.” The theological definition is “the action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God.” Sanctification is an ongoing process. It comes from the Greek word hagiazo, which means to be separate or set apart. As we’ll see later, sanctification is not the same as salvation. We’ll also see that justification is a transaction and sanctification is a transformation.

Justification is a Transaction

In Christian doctrine, justification is God’s act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin, and imputing His righteousness through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Romans 3:22-24 says, “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).

Eugene Peterson provides the following translation of Romans 3:21-24: “But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ” (MSG) [Emphasis added].

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We are justified, declared righteous, at the moment of our salvation. Justification does not make us righteous, but rather pronounces us righteous. Our righteousness comes from placing our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice covers our sin, allowing God to see us as perfect and unblemished. Certainly, it should be obvious that this is something we simply cannot accomplish on our own. Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Romans, says, “St. Augustine writes in the ninth chapter of his book Concerning the Spirit and the Letter: ‘He does not speak of the righteousness of God, by which God is righteous, but of that with which He clothes a person when He justifies the ungodly.’ Again in the eleventh chapter he comments: ‘But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested; that is, God imparts it to the believer by the Spirit of grace without the work of the Law, or without the help of the Law. Through the Law God opens man’s eyes so that he sees his helplessness and by faith takes refuge to His mercy and so is healed.'”

Reach For God

Romans 5:18-19 sums up this concept quite nicely. “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the one man the many were made righteous” (NIV). It is because of justification that the peace of God can rule in our lives. It is because of justification that believers can have full assurance of their salvation. It is the fact of justification that enables God to begin the process of sanctification—the process by which God makes us in reality what we already are positionally. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2, NIV).

Sanctification is a Transformation

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The very moment we are saved in Christ we are also immediately sanctified and begin the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. As God’s children, we are set apart from that moment to carry out His divine purposes. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (NIV). Peterson’s translation says, “It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process” (MSG).

Sanctification is different than salvation. It is important to differentiate between the two concepts. Jesus gave his life on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. His blood washes away our sins and frees us from eternal suffering and damnation. Believers are save because of what Christ has already done. We can do absolutely nothing to earn salvation. Sanctification occurs as a result of salvation. But sanctification does not stop there. Instead, it is a progressive process that continues in a believer’s life. This is because even as Christians we still have the capacity to sin. We find ourselves in a spiritual battle the moment we confess Christ as Messiah and decide to follow Him. Paul describes this inner battle in Galatians 5:17: “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 [able] to do whatever you want” (NIV).

Paul notes in Romans 15:16 that through the grace of God he became a minister of the Gospel to the Gentiles so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s ministry was not merely to win converts to Christ; he intended to see people become sanctified. He says, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done…” (v. 18). Obedience leads to sanctification. Romans 6:17 says, “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 have become slaves to righteousness.” (NIV).

Sanctification is the Key to Spiritual Growth

Sanctification is both a matter of position and progression. Indeed, we’re told to work toward perfection—that is, maturity in Christ. We’re to move from milk to solid food. We are sanctified because Jesus Christ has saved us and yet sanctification continues to work within to transform us into the likeness of Christ. Sanctification is the responsibility of every believer in Christ. When we choose to pursue sanctification in our life, positive growth occurs. It is important to remember this is a process, and cannot be rushed. Like a newborn baby that gradually matures unto adulthood, so is the work of sanctification in the life of a new Christian. The work of sanctification will ultimately be completed in every believer’s life when Christ returns.

Paul writes, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)

 

The Great Deceiver

Satan thinks he has everything figured out, and he plans to deceive the whole world through his unholy minions.

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Unfortunately, the world is littered with con artists and so-called snake oil salesmen who make it their life’s work to masquerade as something they are not. Today, that scourge often shows its ugly face through Internet scammers, identity thieves, and door-to-door fraudsters. None can equal the greatest con artist of all time—Satan, whom Jesus calls “a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44). Satan’s biggest con is yet to come and will be unleashed on unsuspecting humanity in the person of the Antichrist.

HIS RECEPTION

After God raptures His church, not a single believer will exist anywhere on Earth. All true followers of Christ will have been transported to heaven to be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), making the entire planet fertile territory for the father of lies—at least for a while—some are able to see the truth and trust Christ as their Savior. Satan’s vehicle for achieving world domination will be the Antichrist—the “man of sin” and “son of perdition”—descriptions that characterize his embodiment of damnation, eternal punishment, and utter destruction (2 Thessalonians 2:3).  The Antichrist’s first deception will be to broker a peace treaty or initiative: “And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week; and after half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator” (Daniel 9:27, RSV).Peace Middle East.jpg

He will seem like a great leader, someone who can help solve all the woes plaguing the post-Rapture world, and people will receive him with open arms. However, he could not care less about peace or humanity. He will be evil, ruthless, and utterly self-centered; and his ultimate objectives will be to rule the world and be worshiped by God. Unfortunately, he will fool billions by using “power, signs, and lying wonders.” He will operate “according to the working of Satan” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). To make matters worse, God will send people a “strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (v. 11).

Ever willing to believe a lie, however, the masses will flock to him and see him as a savior. He will con everyone. “All the world marveled and followed the beast [Antichrist]. So they worshiped the dragon [Satan] who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast” (Revelation 13:3-4). The scope and authority of the Antichrist’s reign will cover “every tribe, tongue, and nation,” including Israel (v. 7).

HIS DECEPTION

Interestingly, the Jewish people will be the most vulnerable to the Antichrist’s promises because, throughout their history, they have wanted little more than to live in peace—and peace is exactly what the Antichrist will offer them. To encourage them to trust him, he may use the outcome of the battle of Gog and Magog. The prophet Ezekiel foretold of a future attack from Gog on the land of Magog that probably will take place early in the post-Rapture era. Gog and its allies “will go up against a land of unwalled villages… to a peaceful people, who dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates… against a people gathered from the nations… who dwell in the midst of the land” (Ezekiel 38:11-12). God says Israel will be “gathered” from the nations and subsequently settling in the land which God have to His servant Jacob” (Ezekiel 28:25).

wars-of-gog-and-magog

Gog will attack while the nation enjoys something it has longed for: safety, without the necessity of walls, bars, or gates. In other words, Israel will have let down its defenses. God will stem the invasion, but it seems the Antichrist will claim the credit. He will appear to bring peace and seduce the Jewish people into placing their confidence in him. However, then he will demand they worship him as God. He will oppose and exalt himself “above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4).

HIS PSEUDO RESURRECTION

Satan will also deceive the Gentile nations. His pseudo-messiah (in the person of the Antichrist) will somehow suffer a mortal wound, but will astonishingly be healed and resurrected from the dead. Revelation 13:3 says, “I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed. And the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast” (NASB). In his obsession to be like God, Satan will construct a fake unholy “trinity.” He will play the part of the father, with the Antichrist as the son, and the False Prophet as the spirit.

Whose Deadly Wound Was Healed

Just prior to the return of Jesus Christ, the greatest political leader in the history of mankind will emerge from Europe. After taking over that region by political cunning and deceit, he will launch a military campaign that will result in his acquiring “authority over every tribe and people and nation” (Revelation 13:7). His empire will be the most extensive in all of history, encompassing the entire world, and his rule will be the most demonic the world has ever experienced. He will begin his rise to power as a dynamic, insightful, visionary leader who will astonish the world with the cleverness of his solutions to world problems. In this regard, he will seem to be the “savior” of the world. As he amasses power, however, his true nature will be revealed. He will set his sights on the elimination of Christianity and Judaism. It is actually for this reason he is identified in Scripture as the Antichrist, for he will stand against (anti) God and Jesus Christ.

HIS CAREER MOVE

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The rapture of Christian believers—a global event—will launch the career of the Antichrist. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul provides a detailed narrative regarding the events surrounding the rise of the Antichrist. The Antichrist cannot rise to power until the one who holds back unfettered lawlessness is “taken out of the way” (v. 7). The rapture of the church is the seminal event that will catapult the Antichrist to power. This is facilitated by worldwide chaos and pain. Of course, the Antichrist will appear to have all the answers to all the world’s problems. He is expected to take over the European Union and rule from Rome.

The Antichrist will rule for seven years—a period the Hebrew Scriptures call “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” and the New Testament calls the Tribulation (Jeremiah 30:7; Matthew 24). At the midpoint, Satan is cast to Earth “as a profane thing” (Ezekiel 28:16), and conditions on Earth deteriorate rapidly. It appears Satan will enter the body of the mortally-wounded Antichrist and indwell him, deluding a vast majority of surviving humanity into thinking their world ruler actually miraculously came back to life—an attempt to emulate Jesus’ resurrection. The seven-year period of the Great Tribulation will begin when the Antichrist negotiates a treaty that will bring true peace to the Middle East, enabling the Jews to rebuild their temple.

Temple at Jerusalem

Interestingly, one of the myths about the Antichrist that has developed in modern times is that the world will be so enamored with him that all nations will surrender their sovereignty to him. This is not biblical. Rather, Scripture indicates that the world will resist his despotic rule. Of course, this is the catalyst for the Third World War (see Revelation 6). Global conflagration will result in the initial death of one-fourth of all humanityapproximately 1.5 billion people in today’s terms. According to Revelation 8 and 9, as the Great Tribulation reaches mid-point, the war will escalate into a nuclear holocaust, resulting in the deaths of an additional one-third of those still alive—this is another 1.5 billion people. This should be considered a bitter-sweet victory because in the process one-third of the Earth will be destroyed and half of its remaining population will be killed. Seemingly as an attempt to restore law and order, the Antichrist will institute a one-world economy and a single global religion.

THE ANTICHRIST: SATAN INCARNATE

When the Antichrist becomes Satan incarnate, he will become a megalomanic; a tyrant obsessed with himself and the Jewish people. Satan has an insane, all-consuming hatred for the Jews. He hates them because they gave the world the Holy Scriptures and sent the Messiah to Earth through the House of David. Satan knows that salvation comes to all mankind through the Jewish nation. Therefore, he wants to destroy the Jews in order to stop this from happening. What Satan fails to realize, however, is that salvation has already been accomplished. This is precisely what Christ meant when, in His last minute of life, He sighed and said, “It is finished.” Some biblical scholars believe the Antichrist will become obsessed with Israel to the point that he neglects his global empire, leading to revolt within his ranks.

It is Finished Red Banner

In the prophecy given by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, the first thing he warned believers about was a counterfeit Christianity (Matthew 24:4-5). The word Antichrist is mentioned four times in John’s epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3). John clearly explains what he meant by the term—meaning “against Christ” or “enemy of Christ.” End-time prophesies show that religious people—including professing Christians deceived into accepting a counterfeit Christianity—will oppose many of the teachings of Christ.

YET ANOTHER BEAST

This con will continue as Satan installs and controls yet another beast (Revelation 13:11), the False Prophet, who will exercise great power and authority, trying to force everyone to worship the Antichrist (whose mortal wound was healed). Through Satan’s power, he will perform miracles and direct people to construct an image of their ruler (v. 14), which he will somehow animate, “that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (v. 15).

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Then the False Prophet is directed by Satan to seal “both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name… his number is 666” (vv. 16-18). Today, people speculate the mark could involve smart-chip technology. The number seven is almost always associated with God, and the number six is traditionally associated with man. Three sixes indicate the unholy “trinity” of Satan.

THE MAN OF LAWLESSNESS

Paul indicates the “man of lawlessness” (Lucifer, the devil) will put on a big show with counterfeit miracles, and wonders. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 Paul describes this man as the Antichrist who will come on the global scene at the beginning of the Day of the Lord—events that take place at the end of history (Isaiah 7:8-25). The Bible often refers to this as that day during which God personally intervenes in history, directly or indirectly. Some biblical scholars believe this is referencing a period of time (or special day) when Christ will reign throughout the world prior to when He cleanses heaven and Earth for the eternal state of all mankind. Some believe this refers to divine judgment that will take place toward the end of the age. In any event, the ultimate or final fulfillment of the prophesies concerning the Day of the Lord will come at the end of history when God, with wondrous power, will punish the wicked and fulfill all His promises.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Satan will employ all manner of trickery in hopes of realizing his greatest ambition: to be God. Lucifer has always wanted the glory that belongs solely to the Most High, and he wants to possess and rule God’s Kingdom. In reference to Lucifer, Isaiah 14:12-14 says, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of dawn! You have been cast down to earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself the Most High'” (NIV) [Emphasis added].

But he will not, hallelujah! He will be brought down “to the lowest depths of the Pit” and eventually be cast into the Lake of Fire forever (Isaiah 14:15; Revelation 20:10). And so will end the story of Satan and his evil quest to rule the world through the Antichrist and become higher than God Almighty. Satan is the great tempter. His aim is to get us to stumble and sin over and over. After all, misery loves company. Luke tells us Satan was behind Peter’s three denials. Even in this instance, however, God set the boundaries. He said to Peter, “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon [Peter], that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32, NIV). Jesus essentially told Satan, “You will not destroy Peter. You will only make him stumble tonight. I find this to be extremely encouraging!

The blinding light of Satan gives way to God’s light. When we renounce the designs of the devil and trust the power and wisdom and sovereignty of God through Christ, we fulfill God’s purpose in letting Satan live (rather than destroy him at the moment of his rebellion). We glorify in the ultimate authority of Christ Jesus over all aspects of creation.

There is still time to choose where you will be. How horrible it would be to trade our eternal glorified bodies and our boundless fellowship and communion with God for the passing pleasure of sin here on Earth! Why not choose to be a part of the Bride now? Choose to be one of those who accepts God’s judgment and direction in their lives.

Saying the sinner’s prayer is simply a way of declaring to God that you are relying on Jesus Christ as your Savior. There are no “magical” words that result in salvation. It is only faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection that can save us. If you understand that you are a sinner and in need of salvation through Jesus Christ, here is a sinner’s prayer you can pray to God: “God, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I deserve the consequences of my sin. However, I am trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I believe that His death and resurrection provided for my forgiveness. I trust in Jesus and Jesus alone as my personal Lord and Savior.

Thank you Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen!”

 

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.