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

Sanctification Dove.jpg

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].

righteous-citizens.png

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

jesus-is-the-way.jpg

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.

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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.

Who We Believe We Are Directly Affects How We Act

We live in a country glutted with biblical material, Christian books, radio and television, but many Christians are not moving on to spiritual maturity. Additionally, there is a degree of biblical illiteracy in America today. Although surveys indicate that a majority of households report having a Bible, not even 50 percent of those who own Bibles read them regularly. Only 1 percent of young Christians read Scriptures on a daily basis.

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Sadly, we have separated the ministries of discipleship and counseling in our churches. Christian discipleship too often has become an impersonal program, although good theological material is being used. Christian counseling has been intensely personal, but often lacks good theology. We’re told that Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. It is important to note that brokenness is the key to effective ministry.

I’ve come to understand that if we really knew God, our behavior would change radically and instantly. I believe that the greatest determinant of mental and spiritual health, as well as spiritual freedom, is a true understanding of God and a right relationship with Him. A good theology is an indispensable prerequisite to a good psychology. Knowing God is key to maturity and freedom. The mind must be transformed in order that we can live by faith and grow spiritually.

WHO ARE YOU?

When we Christians are asked to identify ourselves in relation to our faith, we usually talk about our doctrinal position (Protestant, evangelical, Calvinist, charismatic), our denominational preference (Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Independent) or our role in the church (Sunday school teacher, choir member, deacon, elder). Is who you are determined by what you do, or is what you do determined by who you are? If a meaningful life is the result of appearance, admiration, performance, accomplishments, status, or recognition, then spirituality would hold no inherent value. Rather, worth would be defined solely by the “stuff” we accumulate; the reputation we earn; the nature of our lifestyle; the circles we run in.

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The Book of Ecclesiastes describes the futility of humankind pursuing a meaningful life in a fallen world without God. Millions of people climb their individual ladder of success, only to discover when they reach the top that their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Thankfully,  wholeness and meaning in life are not the products of what you have or don’t have; what you’ve done or haven’t done. You are already a whole person and possess a life of infinite meaning and purpose because of who you are—a child of God. The only identity equation that works in God’s kingdom is you plus Christ equals wholeness of meaning.

If our relationship with God is the key to wholeness, why do so many believers struggle with their identity, security, significance, sense of worth, and spiritual maturity? Ignorance is the primary reason. The prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6). For others, it is carnality, the lack of repentance, and little or no faith in God. Others are being deceived by the Father of Lies.

THE ONLY IDENTITY EQUATION THAT WORKS

Sadly, a great number of Christians are trapped in the same downward spiral. We fail, so we see ourselves as failures. This was my self-concept for well over forty years. Constant poor decisions, two failed marriages, and four decades of active addiction seemed to inject a false sense of meaning and identity into my life. We sin, so we see ourselves as sinners, which only leads to more sin. To understand the Gospel and who we are in Christ, we need to look at the creation account and the subsequent fall of humankind.

THE EFFECTS OF THE FALL

Unfortunately, the idyllic setting in the Garden of Eden was shattered. Genesis 3 tells the sad story of Adam and Eve’s lost relationship with God through sin. The effects of their fall were dramatic, immediate, and far reaching, infecting every subsequent member of the human race.  What happened to Adam and Eve spiritually because of the Fall? They died. Their union with God was severed, and they were separated from Him. Was this a physical death? Not immediately, although physical death would be a consequence of the Fall as well. They died spiritually; they were separated from God’s presence. They were physically cast out of the Garden of Eden and a cherubim waving a flaming sword was stationed at the entrance “to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Genesis 3:24).

Lost Knowledge of God

What effect did the Fall produce in Adam’s mind? He lost his true perception of reality, and the idea of knowing God was no longer relational. Instead, it was about accumulating data about God. Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after their disobedience. Certainly, this reveals a faulty understanding of who God is. How can you hide from an omnipresent God? Their distorted perception of reality reflects Paul’s description of the futile thinking of those who don’t understand who God is. “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:18, NIV). For me, I had become so lost that I didn’t even realize how lost I was.

ALL SINFUL BEHAVIOR IS A WRONG ATTEMPT AT MEETING BASIC NEEDS. THE ESSENCE OF SIN IS A MAN LIVING INDEPENDENTLY OF GOD, WHO HAS SAID THAT HE WILL MEET ALL OF OUR NEEDS AS WE LIVE OUT LIFE IN CHRIST.

When they sinned and were banished from the Garden, Adam and Eve lost their relationship with and intimate knowledge of God, which was intrinsic to that relationship. In our unregenerate state, we may have known something about God, but we didn’t know God because we had no relationship with Him. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST

Many Christians are not living free and productive lives because they don’t understand who they are and why they are here. Who they are is rooted in their identity and position in Christ. If they don’t see themselves the way God sees them, to that degree they suffer from a false identity and poor sense of worth. In other words, they don’t fully understand the Gospel and the dramatic change that occurred in them the moment they trusted in Christ. The redemptive plan of God began to unfold when Christ, the last Adam, appeared. The first thing we notice about the life of Christ is His complete dependence on God the Father. He said, “I can do nothing on My own initiative” (John 5:30). “I live because of the Father” (6:57).

Jesus Came to Give Us Life

Like the first Adam, Jesus was born both physically and spiritually alive. This was made evident by the fact that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God and was born of a virgin. Unlike the first Adam, Jesus was tempted in every way, but He never sinned. He never lost His spiritual life because of any sin He committed. He kept His spiritual life all the way to the cross. What Adam and Eve lost in the Fall was spiritual life, and Jesus came to give us life. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

THE WHOLE GOSPEL

Many Christians are living under half a Gospel. They may have heard that Jesus is the Messiah who came to die for their sins, and if they pray to receive Christ, they will go to heaven when they die. They know their sins will be forgiven, but they don’t see the benefit of a personal relationship with Christ. Perhaps you’ve been plagued by this unfortunate short-sightedness, as I have. What’s wrong with thinking this is all there is to salvation? It is only half the Gospel. If you came across a dead man and you had the power to save him, what would you do? Give him life? If that is all you did, then he would die again. To save the dead person, you would have to cure the disease that caused him to die.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE CHRIST’S DIFFERENCE MAKES

Believers are alive in Christ. Being spiritually alive in Him is the overwhelming theme of the New Testament. In the Book of Ephesians alone we find 40 references to being “in Christ” and having Christ in us. For every biblical passage that teaches that Christ is in you, 10 teach that you are “in Christ.” This is the primary basis for Paul’s theology. “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17, emphasis mine).

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Here’s the thing: We weren’t born in Christ at the time of our natural birth. We were born dead in our trespasses and sins (see Ephesians 2:1). Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Physical birth gains only physical life for us. Spiritual life, the eternal life Christ promises to those who come to Him, is gained only through spiritual birth (see 3:36). The moment you were born again your soul came into union with God in the same way Adam was in union with God before the Fall. You became spiritually alive, and your name was written in the Lamb’s book of life (see Revelation 21:27). Eternal life is not something you get when you die.

New Life Brings New Identity

Salvation is not a future benefit; rather, it is a present transformation. This is what a large number of born-again Christians do not seem to grasp. Transformation occurs at spiritual birth, not physical death. Being a Christian is not just a matter of getting something; it is a matter of becoming someone new. Salvation is not just forgiveness of sins and a ticket to paradise. A Christian, in terms of his or her deepest identity, is a saint, a spiritually-born child of God, a divine masterpiece, a child of light. What you receive as a Christian isn’t the point; it is who you are in Him. It is that identity that now makes you who you are. Moreover, it is not what you do as a Christian that determines who you are; it is who you are that determines what you do.

Understanding your identity in Christ is essential for living the Christian life. People cannot consistently behave in ways that are inconsistent with the way they perceive themselves. You don’t change yourself by your perception. You change your perception of yourself by believing the truth. If you perceive yourself wrongly, you will live wrongly because what you are believing is not true. If you think you are a no-good bum, you will probably live like a no-good bum. If, however, you see yourself as a child of God who is spiritually alive in Christ, you will begin to live accordingly. Of course, the major strategy of Satan is to distort the character of God and the truth of who we are. He can’t change God, and he can’t do anything to change our identity and position in Christ. If, however, he can get you to believe a lie, you will live as though your identity in Christ isn’t true.

CONCLUSION

One of the greatest ways to help yourself grow into maturity in Christ is to continually remind yourself who you are in Him. The more you reaffirm who you are in Christ, the more your behavior will begin to reflect your true identity. In practice, we should constantly be reminding ourselves who we are. We need to learn to talk to ourselves, and ask ourselves whether we truly understand the scope and meaning of our conversion and baptism. We have been united with Christ in His death and resurrection. We no longer have to be a slave to sin. We have a new Master.

How important is it to know who you are in Christ? Countless numbers of Christians struggle with their day-to-day behavior because they labor under a false perception of who they are. They consider themselves sinners who hope to make it into heaven by God’s grace, but they can’t seem to live above their sinful tendencies. What is the believer’s hope? That you are a child of God now, who is being conformed to the image of God. The person who has this hope “purifies himself” and begins to live according to who he or she really is. You must believe you are a child of God to live like a child of God. “God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)

 

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