Justification

MARTIN LUTHER STRUGGLED a great deal with the idea of justification and righteousness. He was so obsessed with sinning and offending God and worried he would die having failed to confess everything. He spent a great deal of time ruminating about his behavior. He unfortunately focused how he could punish himself  and assure that he would be redeemed and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Luther often deprived himself of comforts, including blankets and coats during cold weather, and often flagellated himself as punishment.

Luther became fixated on Paul’s letter to the Romans. He could not grasp the manner by which he could ever hope to become “righteous” in God’s eyes. He was especially concerned about Romans 1:17, which says, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther, in his Preface to his Commentary on Romans (1552 A.D.), wrote

This Espistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.

It seems Luther was quite concerned about the orientation of his heart and about how he might earn salvation. He wrote, “How can a man prepare himself for good by means of works, if he does no good works without displeasure and unwillingness of heart? How shall a work please God, if it proceeds from a reluctant and resisting heart?” This was his personal obsession: Is my heart right with God? Can I possibly be worthy of redemption? How can I put on the righteousness of Christ? No doubt he was tormented with the example of Paul regarding the struggle to do good. Paul wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me… For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-17, 19).

In his commentary, Luther wrote, “So also the Apostle says in in 7:15: ‘That which I do, I allow not” (I do not approve). The Apostle means to say: As a spiritual man I recognize only what is good, and yet I do what I do not desire, namely, that which is evil, not indeed willfully and maliciously. But while I choose the good, I do the opposite. The carnal man, however, knows what is evil, and he does it intentionally, willfully and by choice.” Looking again at Romans 1:17, Luther said,

God certainly desires to save us not through our own righteousness, but through the righteousness and wisdom of someone else or by means of a righteousness which does not originate on earth, but comes down from heaven. So, then, we must teach a righteousness which in every way comes from without and is entirely foreign to us.

God’s righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which alone we are accounted righteous before Him. Luther struggled to understand how it is we become righteous. Not surprisingly, Romans 1:17 directly affected the course of the Protestant Reformation more than any other. The moment Luther grasped in his heart the process by which we put on the righteousness of Christ a gate opened to heaven. He was able to grasp that it is only through God’s love and grace and justice that we can become righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ.

Of course, it took Luther asking the right questions: What does this mean, that there’s this righteousness that is by faith, and from faith to faith? What does it mean that the righteous shall live by faith? Again, verse 17 contains the theme for the whole exposition of the Gospel that Paul lays out in Romans. Luther could now understand that what Paul was speaking of here was a righteousness that God in His grace was making available. It is to be received passively, not actively. Rather, it is received by faith

From a linguistics standpoint, the Latin word for justification that was used at this time in church history is justificare from the Roman judicial system. The term is made up of the word justus, which translates “justice or righteousness,” and the infinitive verb facare, which means “to make.” But Luther was looking now at the Greek word used in the New Testament: dikaios, or dikaiosune, which does not mean “to make righteous,” but rather to regard as righteous, to count as righteous, to declare as righteous. This allowed Luther to realize that the doctrine of justification is what happens when God sees us clothed in righteousness through our faith in Jesus Christ. Justification does not come through sacraments or priestly absolution or by an edict handed down from the pope. This position shines through in Luther’s 95 Theses that launched the Reformation.

Consider three theses written by Luther:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.

The word cannot be properly understood as referring the sacrament of penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

Those who preach indulgences are in error when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the pope’s indulgences.

So Luther said, “Whoa, you mean the righteousness by which I will be saved, is not mine?” Nope. It’s what he called a justitia alienum, meaning “alien righteousness.” It’s a righteousness that belongs properly to someone else. A righteousness that is extra nos, outside of us. It is the righteousness of Christ. Luther said, “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. The doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.” Luther considered justification to be the article by which the church stands or falls.

WHAT IS JUSTIFICATION?

Justification and righteousness are legal terms. Following a trial, a verdict is declared as to how the individual now stands before the court.  In Scripture, to justify does not mean to make righteous in the sense of changing a person’s character. We’re not magically changed into righteousness; instead, we are declared righteous in the eyes of the Lord. When He looks at us, He no longer sees our sins. He has wiped them away and remembers them no more. Rather, when the Father looks at us He sees Jesus.

Here are several key points regarding justification:

  • Justification is the opposite of condemnation. In Deuteronmy 25:1 the judges are to acquit (justify) the innocent and condemn the guilty. Clearly, to condemn does not literally mean “to make them guilty,” but rather to “declare them to be guilty,” and so determine them to be “guilty” by the verdict. In other words, if a man or woman stands accused of a crime and wins an acquittal, the verdict does not render an otherwise guilty person innocent. The verdict does not change the facts. After all, guilty people win acquittal in criminal court. It’s a matter of applying the law to the evidence and making a declaration.
  • The terms with which righteousness is associated have a judicial character—for example, consider the emphasis in Genesis 18:25 on God as the Judge.
  • The expressions used as synonyms or substitutes for justify do not have the sense of “making righteous,” but carry a declarative or constitutive sense.
  • The ultimate proof that justification involves a status changed by public declaration lies in the biblical view that through the resurrection Jesus Himself was “justified” (1 Timothy 3:16). The justification of Christ was not an actual alteration in His character. Rather, it refers to His vindication by the Father through the triumph and victory of the resurrection. Romans 1:4 says, “And who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (NIV).

THE POWER OF JUSTIFICATION

The practical impact of this doctrine cannot be overstated. The wonder of the Gospel is that God has declared Christians to be rightly related to Him in spite of their sin. Luther struggled with the same thing I have on many occasions. That is, assuming that we remain justified only so long as there are grounds in our character for justification. Paul’s epistle teaches us that nothing we ever do contributes to our justification. Frankly, there is nothing adequate we could do. Ever.

Justification is more than forgiveness; it involves being cleared of all blame, free from every charge of sin lodged against you. In a secular court, a judge cannot both forgive a man and justify him at the same time. If he forgives the defendant, then the man must be guilty and therefore he cannot be justified. If the judge justifies the defendant, the accused does not need forgiveness. God forgives the sin and justifies the sinner. Plugging this analogy into the Gospel, God forgives the guilty and condemned sinner and literally places him in a new position devoid of any charge against him at all (see Romans 8:1).

IT’S A MATTER OF FAITH, NOT A MATTER OF LAW

No one is justified by his or her own actions. Romans 3:20, 22-23 says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin… 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).

God justly justifies sinners through the work of Christ. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 2:2). When we confess our sins, we discover that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from our own unrighteousness. Of course, this still begs the question How does Christ’s righteousness become ours? Martin Luther was able to settle on faith in Christ. No works of ours, no good resolutions or reformation, can justify us or contribute one little bit to our justification. Such outwardly good works are really our attempt at self-righteousness. For us to be justified, Jesus must pay the penalty for our sins, and we must receive that payment by faith.

At the center of Paul’s teaching is the cross of Jesus and faith in the sacrifice of the crucified Lord. Paul wrote, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:1, NIV).  Certainly, God’s wrath is revealed in His response to sin. Without a valid source of justification, we’d have no choice but to face that wrath. We deserve it. God also demonstrates His righteousness in the salvation of men. His wrath toward the sinner was poured out on Jesus Christ who died an agonizing and horrendous death in our place. God’s anger was appeased in Christ. Accordingly, God is able to save and to bless everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and who receives His salvation by faith.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Justification is of grace, to be received as a gift by faith in order that God may guarantee his promise of salvation. If justification depended on works, it would be unattainable. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that justification were attainable. It would be subject to decay unless we were able continue justifying ourselves by works. Thankfully, justification is all about grace. It is based on the work of Christ, not on our works. Accordingly, God is able to guarantee our justification. We have assurance of our salvation and the hope of heaven. Once forgiven, our standing in God’s eyes is that of a “just” or “righteous” person. The empowerment of God’s Spirit enables one to continue in righteousness.

Being justified by God means that once redeemed we can become partakers of His divine nature, and we can aim for perfection. The divine image, with moral and spiritual perfection, which was imparted to us in the Garden of Eden and subsequently marred and distorted by sin, is now our goal. We must not let God’s gift of justification by faith lead to becoming complacent. Like Paul, we should be diligent in our efforts towards spiritual perfection and sensitive to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

Jesus: Portrait of a Messiah

Jesus and the Twelve.jpg

I’VE BEEN THINKING A LOT lately about who Jesus truly is, and how He conducted Himself during his ministry. Just think about how much love He has for us and for the Father. Jesus lived to be the Good News we all need. He was committed to doing the will of the Father. In fact, He was the embodiment of God’s love for us. Jesus was forgiving and accepting of everyone He encountered.

A LOOK AT THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

I was reading in Matthew recently and found it rich with information. The synoptic Gospel of Matthew is one of the most quoted books of the Bible. It contains the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. It is in Matthew that Jesus explains the Golden Rule. It famously concludes with the Great Commission: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, the worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'” (Matthew 28:16-20, NIV).

The Gospel of Matthew is especially important, for it is one of the two Gospels originally written by an apostle—John being the other one. It is likely Matthew wrote his gospel in Antioch, which was perhaps an early home of Christianity (85 A.D.). The Book of Acts (essentially a chronicle and exposition on the activities of the early Christian church after Jesus ascended into heaven following His crucifixion) recorded that the followers of Jesus there first called Christians in Antioch (see Acts 11:26).

MY TAKE ON JESUS

I find Jesus to be fascinating, enigmatic, powerful, consistent, straightforward. He was not a diplomat or politician. His agenda was devoid of trying to please everyone. He saw the potential, the good—the redeeming qualities if you will—in everyone He met. He literally oozed unconditional love. He was not tolerating of hypocrites—especially the Pharisees who practiced what I like to call  “conspicuous religious consumption.” They were most concerned with their own public image, and considered themselves to be the only group that understood God. They felt they were holier than others—the word Pharisee is from an Aramaic word meaning “separated.” Jesus saw the heart, not the attire. He clearly saw everyone on the same, equal footing.

Certainly, there were individuals with whom Jesus got angry—like the money changers and the men at the Temple selling animals for sacrifice at an exorbitant profit. I identify quite easily with the types of people Jesus loved, reached out to, ministered to, and healed. Basically, the broken. When moving in the physical realm, God has always had a soft spot for people who are far from perfect. Our weakness is God’s power. He uses the flawed and the troubled to implement His will. He does not look for the perfect; even the not-so-imperfect. God does not call the qualified; rather, He qualifies the called. This is great news! None are perfect. None are without sin.

That was music to my ears. I have often felt I am one of those whom Christ could not save. I have been downtrodden, depressed, resentful, suicidal, mentally ill, and an addict. I am a convicted felon. I’m twice divorced, have had cars repossessed, been evicted, had my children refuse to speak to me. I have a long-standing history of lying, cheating, and stealing. There are so many “failures” in my life that I simply stopped counting. But in the eyes of the Father, I have been made in His image. Jesus loves me and wants me to have an abundant, successful, God-sharing life. Jesus accepts me for who I am, with absolutely no strings attached. He does not play favorites at all, which is miraculous in itself. That fact alone—His undying, unconditional love—may be one of the most supernatural things Jesus did. He didn’t show partiality at all, and neither should we.

BECAUSE HE FIRST LOVED ME

For me, I will love God because He first loved me. I will do my best to obey God because I love God. But if I were unable to accept God’s love, I would be unable to love Him in return, and unlikely to be obedient. The ability to accept God’s unconditional love and unmerited favor is all the fuel we need to obey Him in return. This is what’s at the crux of getting God out of your head and into your heart. Accepting God’s grace and love is something the devil does not want us to do. If we hear, in our “inner ear,” a voice saying we are failures, we are losers, we will never amount to anything. This is the voice of Satan trying to distract us from God’s love. This is not the voice of God. God woos us with kindness and grace and acceptance. We become saints. We partake of sonship through Jesus. Through this, God changes our character with the passion of His love.

Sometimes I wonder if I am doing everything God expects of me. Certainly, I miss the mark. When we look at Matthew 28:16-20, we realize none of us truly measure up. Jesus said to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick. John 14:12 tells us, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (NIV). He said to love those that persecute me. This involves putting our ego in check. Regardless of who He truly was, Jesus did not let this impact His ego or derail his ministry.

Jesus did not mix His ministry (indeed, his theology) with politics. I grew up doing that, which got in the way of the central message of the Gospel. I know that was wrong, and I know that there are a log of people who will not listen to the message of Christ because of believers carrying their own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across.

THE MEASURE OF OUR FAITH

Love is the measure of our faith, the inspiration for our obedience, and the true altitude of our discipleship. By altitude, I mean how high we can go in God. How deep our relationship can be. Love is a distinguishing mark of Christians and something the Lord commanded us to do. John 13:34-35 tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (NIV). This is what we mean by a God kind of love. It is impossible to have this kind of love without accepting Christ. Love and the cross are indivisible.

Jesus said we should love others as God loves us—selflessly, sacrificially, with understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness. Jesus did not come to our world to condemn, and neither should we. But how can we love others if we’re unsure of His love for us personally? When we refer to God’s love, we’re talking about unselfish giving of Himself to us, which brings about blessings in our lives—no matter how unlovable we might be. I don’t know about you, but that makes me extremely happy. I always felt unlovable growing up. I felt I was too bad, too evil, to be loved. God’s love is not just an emotion, decision, or action. Well, in one sense love is a verb. It is something we do, not something we say. Love, of course, is who God is. It says in 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (NIV).

GOD CHOSE US

John 17:24 says, “Jesus prayed, ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (NIV). Let’s compare this verse to Ephesians 1:4-5, which states, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” God loved us and foresaw our adoption into His holy family before He created the earth.

We know Jesus died for us. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV). His death was the ultimate gift to us. What more can a man do than lay down his life for those he loves? On the cross, Jesus emptied Himself for our sake, pouring out His love so that we might be saved. He loved us, then, and He still loves us today—regardless of all our sins, mistakes, or struggles. In fact, He will love us and aid us during all our struggles.

God cares for us. God continually watches over us, providing our needs. He protects and guides us, and answers our prayers. The Lord may not always act within the time frame we expect, but if we’re faithful to wait on Him, He will always come through for us according to His will. The best way to learn about God’s deep concern for His children is to spend time reading the Scriptures and meditating on His Word. If we devote ourselves to the Lord, we will discover that He is always caring for us. What’s unfathomable, God promises to love us unconditionally. No matter what. He will never leave us or forsake us.

Hebrews 13:5b reminds us “…Neither will I leave you, never will I forsake you” (NIV). In verse 6, we’re told, “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?'” If God loved us only sometimes, but not all the time, that would indicate His character, feelings, and attitude are changeable. But the Lord never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Thankfully, neither is His love contingent upon what we do. Whether or not we go to church, witness, pray enough, and never sin—which we know is impossible—will not impact God’s love for us as His children. God’s affection is always the same. You can’t do anything to deserve God’s love, and you can’t do anything to keep Him from loving you. There is no sin too great. No person too depraved. God loves us all and sent His Son to be our ultimate sacrifice.

Remember, the Apostle John tells us that God is love. This may be a difficult truth for the human mind to comprehend. But love is the Lord’s very essence. He is the source from which all true love flows. There are no limitations, no restrictions, and no exceptions. God’s care for us is absolute and genuine, and through creation He has unmistakably declared that love. But in His most powerful proclamation of all, He sent His Son to die for us, so that we could enjoy His loving presence for all of eternity.

THE GOD KIND OF LOVE

What are the attributes of this agape kind of love? Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13. Starting at verse 4, “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (NIV). How important is love? Peterson puts it this way in The Message: If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (vv. 1-7).

The love God has for you and me is far beyond human comprehension. Jesus told us that God loves us as much as He loves Jesus. Think of it! What a staggering and overwhelming truth to comprehend. We need have no fear of someone who loves us unconditionally. We never need to be reluctant to trust God with our entire lives, whatever situation we find ourselves in. God does truly love us. And the most unbelievable part is that He loves us even when we’re being disobedient. He disciplines or corrects us because He loves us. We’re told in the Bible not to be angry when the Lord punishes us. We should not be discouraged when He has to show us where we have gone off the rails. For when He punishes us, it proves that He loves us. We need to let God train us.

We are commanded to love. Jesus said we are to love the Lord our God with our our heart, soul, and mind. That means we have to love Him unconditionally. Even when our lives are falling apart and He seems to be ignoring us. Jesus said loving God was the first or greatest commandment of the new covenant. He said the second-most important thing is to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. If we keep these two commandments we will find it easier to fulfill the other commandments given to us through Moses.

I’ve learned I cannot love in my own strength. Scripture tells us that just as surely as those who are in the flesh (the worldly, carnal person) cannot please God, so in our own strength was cannot love as we should. We can’t demonstrate agape love, God’s unconditional love, through our own efforts. How many times have you resolved to love someone? How often have you tried to manufacture some kind of positive loving emotion to another person for whom you felt nothing? Such as trying to “love” your neighbor who gives you nothing but grief and heartache. It’s impossible, isn’t it? In your own strength, it is not possible to love as God loves.

Jesus lived out the agape kind of love by being a sacrifice for us. He laid down His life willingly. No man took the life of Jesus. And He did this out of a perfect, undying, unconditional love for us. But one way we can show God we love Him is by keeping His commandments. Jesus said, “The one who loves Me will be loved by the Father.” Of course, the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and soul.

And we have the example of Jesus to follow.

 

 

 

 

Following Christ in an Anti-Christian Age

Unfortunately, contemporary American culture is increasingly anti-Christian. How should Christians respond to a rapidly changing American culture? Do we resign ourselves to pessimism, convinced that many of the moral foundations upon which our society once stood have collapsed and are now irrevocable? Or do we reassure ourselves with optimism, confident that we can still win the culture war if we’ll just unite together spiritually, personally, politically, and philosophically? Most likely neither pessimism nor optimism is the answer. Instead, realism is.

An Example

The Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor 570 U.S. (2013) (Docket No. 12-307)[5-4] challenges Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA): “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

The majority opinion of the Court held, “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. The Constitution’s guarantee of equality must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify disparate treatment of that group. In determining whether a law is motived by an improper animus or purpose, [d]iscriminations of an unusual character especially require careful consideration. DOMA cannot survive under these principles.” The Supreme Court accused Christians who believe the “narrow” teaching of the Bible relative to marriage as bigoted.

Persecution is Worldwide

Of course, such anti-Christian sentiments are obviously not limited to America. Across the world, followers of Christ live in settings that are hostile to Christianity (many of them far more hostile than the United States). After all, Christianity was born into a culture of vehement opposition over two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, and faced tremendous persecution throughout Judea and at the hands of the Romans. The total number of Christians martyred in the early church is unknown. It has been calculated that between the first persecution under Nero in 64 to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians experienced 129 years of persecution.

Sadly, the plight of Christians is worse today. According to Jeremy Weber of Christianity Today (January 11, 2017), for the third year in a row, the modern persecution of Christians worldwide has hit an all time high. Interestingly, the primary cause—Islamic extremism—is being eclipsed by a brand of ethnic nationalism. Principally, this is a form of nationalism wherein the nation is defined in terms of a shared heritage, which usually includes a shared language, a common religious faith, and a common ethnic ancestry. Weber notes in his article the 2017 World Watch List released by Open Doors. In 25 years of “chronicling and ranking” the political and societal restrictions on religious freedom experienced by Christians worldwide, Open Doors researchers identified 2016 as the “worst year yet.”

How should followers of Christ today live in an America or any other culture that is intentionally and increasingly anti-Christian? It seems that every professing Christian in any such culture has two clear options: retreat or risk persecution. Sure, we can retreat. But we’d be denying Christ. Peter chose this option (Mark 14:66-72). Certainly, most Christians won’t reject Christ outright and not all at once. Instead, our retreat can be slow and subtle. I see this happening in America today through “progressive” faith, “inclusive” belief, “open” minds, and “ecumenical” churches. This involves trading God’s truth for the changing opinions of the world. The signs of such retreat are already apparent here in America.

Christians might not retreat from Christ; however, they may very well retreat from society. In the face of increasing anti-Christian sentiment and social pressure, many Christians who hold a steadfast belief in the Bible may choose to hide in the comfortable confines of privatized faith. We might stand up and speak with strong conviction—but many do so in the privacy of our homes or at church. We remain silent at work or in our university classes or other public settings. When the conversation at the coffee shop switches to the topic of gender dysphoria or same-sex marriage, or the language becomes rather course, Christians often sheepishly, almost apologetically, stumble  through a vague notion of what the Bible teaches, or probably more likely, might say nothing at all.

Worse, when our boss asks what we believe and we realize that our job may be in jeopardy based on how we answer, we might find ourselves masking, or at least minimizing, our faith. On a smaller scale, I recently started a new job in retail. I completed an “availability” form indicating I was not able to work after 5:00 pm on Wednesday or before 1:00 pm on Sunday in order to attend church services. The store general manager insisted that I change my availability to all hours on those days and initial the changes in order to get hired. I gave in.

The Gospel and Culture

Clearly, the Gospel is the lifeblood of Christianity, and it provides the very foundation for countering culture. When we truly believe the Gospel, it goes from mere head knowledge to something that lives in our heart. We begin to realize the Gospel not only compels Christians to confront social issues in the culture around us; the Gospel actually creates confrontation with the culture around and within us. Of course, it is increasingly common for biblical views on social issues to be labeled insulting. Today it’s considered insulting and “backward” to an ever-expanding number of people to say a woman who is emotionally and sexually attracted to another woman should not express love for her in marriage. It doesn’t take long for a Christian to be backed into a theological corner, not wanting to be offensive yet wondering how to respond.

Culture now impacts the church. Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-Day Adventist minister, published an online article on CNN.com titled “Why You Don’t Need God.” You can read the article in its entirely by clicking here. Bell is a writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a year-long journey to explore the limits of theism and the growing landscape of atheism in America. Bell writes, “I had been a Seventh-day Adventist pastor for 19 years. I resigned from my pastoral position the year before, but now I stepped away from my faith altogether. It was gut-wrenching, but I couldn’t see any other way to find peace and clarity. I encountered major theological differences with my denomination and evangelical Christianity in general, including the way it marginalizes women and LGBT people.”

For many, the Gospel’s offense starts with the very first words of the Bible. “In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1). Genesis was written in Hebrew and provided the people a foundation for their faith. Certainly, Genesis was not meant to be an exhaustive blow-by-blow account of how God created the heavens and the earth. Frankly, such an account would have caused the Bible to be far too large a tome.

For many, the initial antagonism of the Gospel is that there is a God—a supreme being by, through, and for whom all things began. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28, RSV). Paul clearly stated that natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, “…for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Consider the confrontation created by the reality of God in each of our lives. Because God is our Creator, we belong to him. The one who created us owns us. Honestly, does that not send a jolt through most of us? A tendency of rebellion? Nobody owns me! So we are not the masters of our own fate; the captains of our own souls.

Our Natural Reaction to God

God placed man in the midst of the Garden of Eden and granted him authority over all as keeper of the garden, charging him with naming the animals. The garden was established by God especially for man, planted in a full-grown state. God had just one command. He said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16b, 17).

Zodhiates and Baker (1997) notes that there may be purposes for the existence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that are not clearly explained in Scripture. They do believe, however, that it functioned as a test of obedience. Adam and Eve had to choose whether to obey God or break His commandment. When they actually ate the forbidden fruit, the consequences of their actions became self-evident. They found themselves in a different relationship to God because of sin. Actually, access to such knowledge was to be based solely upon a proper relationship with God. The real questions which faced Adam and Eve are the same ones that face us today: Which path should be chosen? What kind of relationship do we want with God?

The serpent was crafty to say the least. He said to Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'” Eve said God allowed consuming anything in the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. She said God warned them, “…or you will surely die.” The serpent said, “You will not surely die… for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-6, NIV). I find the serpent’s ruse to be fascinating given he—as Lucifer—was cast down from heaven because of pride originating from his desire to be God instead of a servant of God. Although he was the highest of all the angels, he wanted more. He literally wanted to rule the universe.

Why do we run from God? John 3:20 says, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” (NIV). The reason most people run from God is because of their love for the flesh; their tendency to live in sin. This is unfortunately not the only reason: Many run from God because of bitterness. This is often due to a tragic event, such as the loss of a loved one. We tend to place God on trial when adversity strikes. The worse the troubles, the deeper our bitterness. But it is sin that is to blame. Nothing is as God planned. From the time of the Fall, all has fallen askew of what God intended.

Nothing New Under the Sun

When we understand this first sin, we realize that the moral relativism of the twenty-first century is nothing new. Whenever we attempt to usurp (or eliminate) God, we lose objectivity for determining what is good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral. Today’s militant atheists are noted for claiming  that morality is merely a biological adaptation in the same manner as hands and feet, teeth and hair. Dawkins (1995) writes, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, not any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, And we dance to its music.”

Of course, the doctrine of the Fall offers an explanation of the imperfection of this world and God Himself, its perfect Creator. This concept does not sit well with many philosophies. Nor does it win any merit with atheists. Launder and Rowlands (2001) are rather vitriolic in their comments in Original Sin: “The term comes from Christianity’s belief that Adam, the first human created by their god, ate an apple from the tree of knowledge, and forever after, all humans have been born guilty of the crime that Adam committed. Original sin refers not just to this particular belief, but to all beliefs that man is born evil.” They argue that this belief is based “on the fallacious view that value is intrinsic.” But we’re not talking about a work of art where the value—the beauty, if you will—is in the beholder. To state that morality or ethics is based solely on interpretation is to suborn moral relativism.

Why is This So?

The Gospel answers that although God created us in His image, we have rebelled against Him in our independence. Though it looks different in each of our lives, we all are just like the man and woman in the Garden. We think, Even if God says not to do something, I’m going to do it anyway. In essence, we’re saying, “God’s not Lord over me, and God doesn’t know best for me. No! I define what’s right and wrong, good and evil.” In other words, morality is relative. This shifts our morality from the objective truth God has given us in His Word to the subjective notions we create in our minds. Even when we don’t realize the implications of our ideas, we inescapably come to one conclusion: whatever seems right to me or feels right to me is what’s right. This amounts to one thing: It’s all about me!

This is why the Bible diagnoses the human condition simply by saying, “All have turned aside, together they have all gone wrong; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12, RSV). Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners” (MSG). Some will argue that Christians are placing “ancestral guilt” on each successive generation. It’s not about being held accountable for what others did before us. Look at 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (NIV) [Italics mine].

We turn from worshiping God to to worshiping self. We probably would never put it that way. Most people don’t  publicly profess, “I worship myself. I am my own god.” The dictionary does contain hundreds of words that start with self: self-esteem, self-confidence, self-advertisement, self-gratification, self-glorification, self-motivation, self-pity, self-centeredness, self-indulgence, self-righteousness, and the like. Are these concepts bad in their own right? No. That’s not the point. I can tell you this, however: I struggled with active addiction for over forty years. Nothing I did—no self effort of any kind—set me free. When I left rehab, I thought, Oh, now I understand. I got this! Trust me, whenever an addict says, “I got this,” he or she is in denial. No human power can relieve an alcoholic or addict of their addiction. For me, there was only one true higher power, Jesus Christ, who broke the chains of addiction over my life. And even that took me letting go of self and letting God set me free.

Twenty-First Century Ambassadors

Representing the truth of the Gospel in the new millennium requires three basic skills. First, we need to grasp the basics of the message of Jesus Christ. We must fully grasp the central message of God’s kingdom and understand how to respond to the obstacles we’re bound to encounter. This is not simply a matter of memorizing Scripture to through at the “unbelievers.” Second, we need the kind of wisdom that makes our testimony clear, bold, and persuasive. In other words, the tools of a diplomat rather than the weapons of a warrior. Tactics rather than brute force.

Finally, our character can make or break our mission. My pastor once said, “The number one attraction to Christianity is other Christians; unfortunately, the number one detractor to Christianity is other Christians.” Knowledge and wisdom are packaged in a person. If we do not embody the virtues and grace of Christ, we will simply undermine our testimony. We’ll taint the message of the Gospel. It would be better that we kept silent than bring shame or doubt or controversy to the very thing that has the power to deliver us from a life of sin and death.

References

Dawkins, R. (1995). River Out of Eden. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Zodhiates, S., and Baker, W. (1997). Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

 

Has the Gospel Changed?

THE GOSPEL STORY ITSELF has not changed, but culture and society has. As a result, the Gospel is viewed against the backdrop of current culture. Culture typically evolves over time—changes in demographics, attitudes toward moral issues, drastic advancements in technology. Accordingly, the method by which we present the Gospel today needs to be such that we do not offend non-believers or appear to be holier-than-thou. Only then will people be willing to listen. It has been suggested by modern-day evangelists that when sharing the Gospel we start where and when God did—in the beginning.

ENGAGING AN EVER-CHANGING CULTURE

It is imperative that we refrain from being dragged along by culture. One of the greatest problems that has frustrated the church is the relation between knowledge and piety—between culture and Christianity. In other words, we don’t want to share a watered-down message. We must always be concerned with proclaiming the Gospel—the entire Gospel. Given the audacity of today’s militant atheists, we should expect increasing objection to the Gospel and challenges to the authenticity and inerrancy of the Bible. By using apologetics to give solid answers, we can help people listen and learn about the most important historical document of all—the whole Bible.

The Gospel should point us toward a time when we can see others—all others—truly as God sees us: as one blood, one flesh, as brothers and sisters. Remember that God truly is the Father of us all; that in Christ the division and the divisiveness between men and women, between different national groups, between different economic circumstances are done away with; that all are alike unto Him; and that even those who do not know Him are known and loved by Him.

CHRISTIANITY VERSUS CULTURE

It is common for believers and non-believers to see religion in Western society as Christianity versus culture—two opposing forces of influence. The church stands on one side of the line and culture on the other. Americans are taking notice that their country is becoming increasingly post-Christian, if not outright anti-Christian. They realize that their beliefs on certain theological and moral issues will increasingly be rejected and mocked by the political, cultural, and academic elite.

The bubble of legalism can’t keep sin out of the church, and it hides one of God’s most useful tools—us. 

If we take a literal us versus them stance, we risk turning the church into a “safe haven” where people seek refuge from the quagmire of unbelief and pluralism. Believers tend to unwittingly perpetuate this “sanctuary city” concept by trying to find the balance between immersing themselves in the world and isolating themselves in a sterile “bubble.” Christians who support this approach have good intentions—they want to preserve the church’s purity, recognizing that the church is under attack and that believers need to hold fast to their faith. They understand that a great battle is being waged (Ephesians 6:11-18); a battle that plays out both visibly in the cultural realm and invisibly in the spiritual realm.

Here’s the thing: Taking this standoffish approach tends to externalize godlessness and treats it as something that can be kept out by man-made walls. Godlessness, however, is a disease of the soul that can never be walled out. Godlessness causes rotting from within. It is troublesome to realize that this mindset tends toward legalism, and it tries to restrict interactions between believers and society. In the immortal words of Dana Carvey’s SNL character Church Lady, “Who could be responsible for this? Is it… Satan?” While it is true that the Christian life involves war against the powers of darkness, it wrongly tries to wage that war by withdrawing from the world.

You can certainly find biblical support for a view that pits the church against culture. Believers with this mentality are clinging to the biblical principle of waging war against that which is evil. They rightly recognize that we must put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11), fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12), resist the devil (James 4:7), and cast down anything that exalts itself against God (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Be aware, however, that this mindset still falls short—it’s too easy to see ourselves fighting against people instead of sin. God uses the church in his plan to rescue people, not destroy them. This is only a small part of God’s plan for restoration. Our social and cultural contexts are full of unbelievers—but those unbelievers are not merely enemies of God; they are also drowning people in need of a lifeboat. The church is not only a base for soldiers, but also a hospital for the spiritually sick.

But consider this angle instead. It is actually culture that is beating people up. Left to their own devices without God, people will take blow after blow—perhaps without even realizing that it’s culture delivering the pain. False promises, questionable social norms, distorted morality, and unchecked sin present in cultures across the globe can all appear good to people without God.

CHRISTIANITY OF CULTURE

I must admit that cultural changes occurring outside the scope and influence of the church are not necessarily bad. God has enabled all people—believer and non-believer alike—to make good and valuable contributions to society. The abolition of slavery and the human rights movement brought about monumental positive changes. And a thorough and honest search of the records of history will show there were Christians on both sides of these issues. Some Christians sought to preserve the status quo of “free” labor from slaves, while others fought for complete emancipation of black slaves. It’s appropriate to state that Christians who took up arms against Lincoln and the Union in order to preserve slavery were morally wrong.

I don’t believe that culture alone can set the stage and lead us in the right direction. Granted, not all cultural tenets are wrong. But culture is not always right either. Today, in a postmodern world, especially in America, pluralism is the norm. Behavior is often analyzed through the lens of moral relativism. The relativist believes that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective or universal moral truths. Instead, such individuals make moral decisions relative to social, cultural, historical, or personal perspectives. Under this tenet, truth is subjective. Bottom line: moral relativists believe that moral or ethical judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (e.g., a specific cultural or historical setting), and that no worldview is uniquely privileged over all others. Not even Christianity.

The Body of Christ cannot simply mirror every decision reached at the cultural level in the hope of winning others to Christ. For example, without God in the picture, culture raises up idols in His place—professional sports stars, actors, politicians, the wealthy and powerful. We must ask, Can the church embrace culture without also embracing its idols? Much of Christian doctrine is black-and-white, whereas culture often speaks in “gray” terms. Believers who subscribe to the Christianity of culture mindset rightly recognize that God created and ordered the world in such a way that left room for mankind to make culture, and that said culture exhibits real aspects of truth, generosity, goodness, and beauty. However, this mentality is misguided because it fails to sufficiently see the way in which every culture, indeed every nuance of culture, is corrupted and distorted due to human sin.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was the good for man… I was awakened from this confused state of mind by finding that the friends of culture seemed to me to be exaggerating. In my reaction against what seemed exaggerated I was driven to the other extreme, and began, in my own mind, to belittle the claims of culture.” Lewis added, “I naturally turned first to the New Testament. Here I found, in the first place, a demand that whatever is most highly valued on the natural level is to be held, as it were, merely on sufferance, and to be abandoned without mercy the moment it conflicts with the service of God.”

ANTI-CHRISTIAN BIAS IN PUBLIC EDUCATION

Solomon (1996) wrote, “At the close of the twentieth century American evangelicals find themselves in a diverse, pluralistic culture. Many ideas vie for attention and allegiance. These ideas, philosophies, or worldviews are the products of philosophical and cultural changes. Such changes have come to define our culture.” This begs the question, How is a Christian supposed to respond to such conditions?

According to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) standards, “[I]t is clear that the dominant social, economic, cultural and scientific trends that have defined the western world for five centuries are rapidly leading in new directions.” The dominant trends that defined Western civilization are of course the Judeo-Christian worldview. So what does this mean for social studies classes in public schools? The NCSS explains, “The United States and its democracy are constantly evolving and in continuous need of citizens who can adapt… to meet changing circumstances. Meeting that need is the mission of social studies.”

Can it be any clearer? Rather than teach America’s true history and founding principles for the preservation of American liberty and Western civilization, the new mission of social studies is to prepare our children to accept the transformation of America. In fact, the NCSS are missionaries of a new religion operating in the field of American education. Unlike Christians, these particular missionaries have government backing, free reign with captive children, and operate under the guise of “education.” This is pluralism at work. It is a systematic tearing down of the “old” in order to make room for the “new.” It is nothing less than indoctrination with one purpose—to convince our children to reject out-of-hand biblical Christianity and to adopt a secular worldview.

Fiorazo (2012) writes, “Christianity is not the thriving , influential power it once was in America. With a majority of people claiming the Christian tradition, why does our godless culture barely reflect the light of Jesus Christ.” We’re living in sad times when professing Christians know less about the Bible than ever before. We live in a country glutted with biblical material, Christian books, radio and television evangelism, 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.

There are many whose ultimate goal is to completely eliminate Christianity from public life in America. Militant atheists shout from their lecterns that Christian parents are brainwashing their children; teaching them the “so-called truth” of the Judeo-Christian doctrine. The late Christopher Hitchens said Christian parents are committing a form of child abuse by “indoctrinating” their children with biblical principles. He likened belief in the Virgin birth and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. God’s Not Dead 2 tells the story of a teacher at a public school who comes under fire for answering a student’s question about Jesus. When the teacher refuses to apologize, the school board votes to suspend her and threatens to revoke her teaching certificate. Forced to stand trial to save her career, she hires a lawyer to defend her in court.

We’re faced with sentiment such as this:

“The battle for mankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as proselytizers of a new faith…. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new – the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism.” (John Dunphy, 1983)

CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK

Traditional American Christians have long been on the losing end of culture-war contests—on school prayer, same-sex marriage and other issues. But recent events, including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics and the mandate that employers provide access to contraception, have added to the sense that religious expression is under attack. According to recent Pew Research reports, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as religiously affiliated has shrunk while the percentage describing themselves as unaffiliated has grown from 2007 to 2014. The percentage who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists fell to 63% from 71% during the same time period.

A new vigorous secularism has catapulted mockery of Christianity and other forms of religious traditionalism into the mainstream and set a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs. In some precincts, the “faith of our fathers” is controversial as never before. Some of the faithful have paid unexpected prices for their beliefs lately: the teacher in New Jersey suspended for giving a student a Bible; the football coach in Washington placed on leave for saying a prayer on the field at the end of a game; the fire chief in Atlanta fired for self-publishing a book defending Christian moral teaching; the Marine court-martialed for pasting a Bible verse above her desk; and other examples of the new intolerance. Anti-Christian activists hurl smears like “bigot” and “hater” at Americans who hold traditional beliefs about marriage and accuse anti-abortion Christians of waging a supposed “war on women.”

Ravi Zacharias said, “The Bible is a controversial book that invokes both devotion and derision. It has inspired some of the greatest thinkers this world has ever known and attracted the hostility of others. It takes a central role in any study of Western civilization and touches the most unlikely of souls.” The current challenges to the Bible are for the most part launched from the postmodern worldview. By its very nature the postmodern worldview is difficult to define. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. Ostensibly, a postmodern theorist believes there are no truly truthful truths. Postmodernism rejects most approaches to art, science, literature, philosophy, and religion. This worldview is about discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. At the root of postmodernism is a strong denial of absolute authority. Ironically, the belief that there is no absolute truth cannot be true unless there is an absoluteness to the absence of absolute truth.

And we wonder why it’s so difficult to fight pluralism, moral relativism, and militant atheism.

References

Fiorazo, D. (2012). Eradicate: Blotting Out God in America. Abbotsford, WI: Life Sentence Publishing, Inc.

Lewis, C.S. (1940). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0040571X4004023702

Solomon, J. (1992). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/culture.html

 

 

Understanding the Concept of Sin

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WHY WAS THE INCARNATION of Jesus necessary? Did He have to die? Was it necessary for Him to die in such a way as to cause the shedding of His blood? Did atonement require the death of a divine being? Was His resurrection from the dead a necessary aspect of atonement, or was death alone sufficient?  How did His death relate to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament? What is our part in atonement?

The Apostle Paul on the Crucifixion

Paul’s view of atonement is the substructure of his theology. He writes that he knew nothing among the Corinthians except “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). This, of course, includes Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Paul defines “the Gospel” as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. Of course, the central focus of Paul’s ministry was atonement for all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews. As a rabbi, Paul understood the life and death of Jesus in the context of Israel, the Old Testament people of God who had been created and prepared for the purpose of bringing the Messianic Redeemer into the world.

What is Sin in the Old Testament?

Sin necessitates atonement. The Book of Hebrews is based on the concept of the conditional nature of atonement in the Old Testament. The fact that Jesus’ death redeemed people from transgressions committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 8:5) emphasizes the point that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4, NRSV). Of course, the Law made nothing perfect (see Hebrews 7:10). Priests under the old covenant system of sacrifice offered “repeatedly the same sacrifices which can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11).

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Atonement in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was primarily for the day-by-day violations of ritual and religious precepts described in Leviticus 1-5 and not for violations of conscience, sins of the heart and mind, as delineated by Jesus and the New Testament. These kinds of sins had no daily sacrificial offering for atonement. The specific purification and expiation sought under the old covenant applied almost solely to cases devoid of intrinsic moral quality. In other words, “sin offering” was not being made by the Old Testament priests for what we know today as sin.

This begs the question, What is sin? In order to address this matter, it is important to note that [and this came as a shock to me] the Old Testament has no general word for sin like the New Testament. Sin in the Old Testament is both a falling away from a relationship of faithfulness toward God and also disobedience to the commandments and the Law. The former is described as unfaithfulness to God’s covenant, the latter is a violation of God’s word and command. In both cases man shuts himself off from fellowship with God and becomes God-less. Although, in the Jewish use of the word, a man may “sin” without meaning to and even without knowing it, the “sinner” in the New Testament sense relates to the man who knowingly and willfully transgresses or ignores the revealed will of God persistently or habitually. Perhaps a good example of such willful sin is choosing to continue a life of theft and deception in order to support living a life of active addiction.

In the Old Testament sacrificial system, intentional sins were not atoned for by the regular sacrifices. Numbers 15:30-31 says, “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the LORD and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the LORD’S word and broken His commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them” (NKJV). It would seem that for such sins committed “with a high hand”—willfully and defiantly with arrogance—no expiation is provided. Such sins caused a person to be “utterly cut off, his guilt is upon him.” I think this helps put the wrath of God into perspective.

Consider the two classes of sin that hattath (the Hebrew term for “sin offering”) is prescribed for:

Ignorant or Inadvertent Transgression. Violation of certain prohibitions (“taboos”), including some in which we see a moral character—e.g., incest—but not all moral wrongs. This category does not include the commonest offenses against morals.

Purification of Various Kinds. The special sacrifices called sin offerings have a very limited range of employment. They are prescribed chiefly for unintentional ceremonial faults or as purification; the trespass offering is even more narrowly restricted. The great expiation for the whole people, at least in later times, was the scape-goat; not any usual form of sacrifice.

What is Sin in the New Testament?

When we look at the concept of sin in the New Testament, a different perspective emerges. Paul does not clearly define sin. It is clear, however, that he also does not see sin as primarily an offense against other people; for him sin is primarily an offense against God. The predominant conception of the nature of sin in the Bible is that of personal alienation from God. In Paul’s mind, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament is that Jesus provides something which the saints of the Old Testament yearned for but could never find: Real and certain victory over sin. C.L. Mitton, in Atonement, writes, “It is sin which has created the need for atonement, because sin, besides corrupting the heart and deadening the conscience and making man increasingly prone to sin again, causes man to be estranged from God, separated from God by an unseen barrier, a dividing wall of hostility” (see Ephesians 2:14) [Emphasis added].

Words for Sin in the New Testament

Sin is a multifaceted concept expressed by many different terms in the New Testament. Leon Morris, in Sin, Guilt, writes, “There are more than thirty words in the New Testament that convey some notion of sin, and Paul employs at least twenty-four of them.”

Formal Terms Indicating Deviation from the Good

  • Miss a mark (Greek, hamartia), miss one’s aim, a mistake; the idea of sin in the abstract (Romans 3:23; 5:12). It is the most frequent word in the New Testament for sin.
  • Results of missing the mark (Greek, hamartêma), referring to individual actions. The word is from the same root as hamartia. Both words appear in a variant reading of 2 Peter 1:9 in Greek manuscripts.
  • Guilty or wicked person (Greek, harmartôlos), as noted in 1 Timothy 1:9, “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers” (NIV).
  • Transgression (of a line, Greek parabasis), passing the bounds God sets on human action, going beyond the norm. The Jews used this term for violations of the Law, but Gentiles do not transgress the Law because they are not under the Law. Romans 4:14-15 says, “For if those who depend on the Law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the Law brings wrath. And if there is no Law there is no transgression” (NIV).
  • Trespass (Greek, paraptôma), “falling away” from the divinely ordered course of duty, a false step. It can also be committed against other humans. In Classical Greek literature, it is a blunder or an error in measurement.
  • Ignorance (Greek, agnoêma) of what one should  have known (see Hebrews 9:7).

Terms With Theological Orientation

  • Lawlessness (Greek, anomia), nonobservance of a law (see 1 John 3:40). It appears opposite of righteousness (Greek, dikaiosynê), and is coupled with scandal (Greek, skandala), with hypocrisy (Greek, hypokrisis), with uncleanness (Greek, akatharsia), and with missing a mark (Greek, hamartia).
  • Breach of Law (Greek, paranomia).
  • Disobedience (Greek, parakoê) to a voice, namely, the voice of God (see Romans 5:10).
  • Ungodliness (Greek, asebeia), impiety, active irreligion, withholding prayer and service that is due God, considered by some the “most profoundly theological word for sin. It indicates offense against God in distinction from akikia, which refers to wrongdoing against mankind. Murray and Milne indicate this is “…perhaps the profoundest New Testament term… it implies active ungodliness or impiety.”

Terms Indicating Spiritual Badness

  • Active evil (Greek, ponêria), qualitative moral evil, wickedness, baseness, maliciousness. In the New Testament and early Christian literature, it is used only in the ethical sense. Satan is the evil one (Greek, ho ponêros).
  • Viciousness (Greek, kakia), qualitative moral evil, malice, evil disposition.
  • Unholy (Greek, anosios), wicked.
  • Defect (Greek, hêttêma), defeat, failure.
  • Scandal (Greek, skandalon). The RSV translates it “causes of sin” in Matthew 13:41, as well as “hindrance,” “temptations to sin,” or “stumbling blocks.”

Ethical and Juridical Terms

  • Unrighteousness (Greek, adikia), injustice, with ungodliness. Anomia is used when delineating wrong done to one’s neighbor. The term is translated variously in different contexts as injustice, unrighteousness, falsehood, wickedness, and iniquity, and us typically associated with sin.
  • Guilty or liable (Greek, enochos), a legal term in courts of law used for a particular wrong (1 Corinthians 11:27; Hebrews 2:15) or to declare one liable to judgment (Matthew 5:21).
  • Debt (Greek, opheilêma), indicating the burden of guilt that the sinner bears in the sight of God.

Atonement Theories

It must be noted that prior to Martin Luther and the Reformation, most Christian writers held that Jesus mediated the righteousness of the cross to mankind by means of the Mass. The church, with its sacramental system, was seen to stand in a position between God and humanity, controlling the access that humans have to God, and consequently the forgiveness that God mediates to humanity through that system. But consider the words in 1 Timothy 2:4-6: “He wants not only us but everyone saved, you know, everyone to get to know the truth we’ve learned, that there is one God and only one, and only one Priest-Mediator between God and us—Jesus, who offered Himself in exchange for everyone held captive by sin, to set them all free” (MSG).

Many in the early church saw Jesus Christ as a martyr. Of course, the basic definition of martyr is a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion. Those who believe Jesus to be merely a martyr conclude that something good happens in our lives only as we follow Jesus. They conclude that Jesus inspires us to be like Him by virtue of what He did during his ministry. Accordingly, if we do nothing or believe nothing —if there’s no response on our part—then nothing actually took place at Calvary. 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (NIV).

Clothed-in-the-Righteousness-of-Christ

Henry (1997) notes in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible that what happens to a new believer is “more than an outward reformation.” Henry indicates that God reconciled us to Himself through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Henry also notes that Christ who knew no sin was made Sin, not a sinner. This seems to indicate that something did indeed occur at the cross, in and of itself, regardless of any response on our part. Something objective happened at Calvary. To me, this is an ontological fact. In other words, the reality of atonement is inseparably bound to the time and place of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

Water Color of Crucifixion

To say that salvation is based upon subjective reality—such as our response to Jesus’ sacrifice—is to say we are only redeemed through our works. This would indicate we have to complete that potentiality ourselves. According to this view, a person looks at the life of Jesus, tries to emulate that life, and by His example becomes a better person. There is nothing objectively supernatural (spiritual) in this view, nothing of God’s forgiveness based on an act of Christ’s atonement. From this perspective, forgiveness occurs only after one has become a “better person,” at which time God grants forgiveness and acceptance. This is the epitome of conditional love.

The belief that Christ becomes our Redeemer only when He is preached and accepted is appropriately designated existentialist in nature because it deals with what happens inside a person when that person makes a decision through faith. According to this view, when one takes what eminent theologian Søren Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith” and accepts Christ through faith, then something really happens. If we buy into this school of thought, we’re saying salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus is actually based upon our moral decision rather than the action (the very death, burial, and resurrection) of Jesus on the cross.

Final Thoughts

In attempting an explanation of the Atonement, it is important that we know something of what motivated the death of Christ. The idea that our Lord died a helpless martyr is nowhere taught in the Bible. Those who have no understanding or appreciation of Jesus Christ’s work for us, lack understanding also on the subject of the nature and effect of sin in all men. Many Scriptures teach clearly that the Atonement of Christ is an expiation of human sin. It is that sin which made the Atonement necessary. Christ became incarnate in order that He should die for human sin.

The objective view —which is the biblical view—emphasizes the actuality of atonement as a fact of history. Something objective happened at Calvary, whether anyone responds or not. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all that needed to occur. In the subjective view, by contrast, atonement is purely potential. It never occurs until someone believes and is responsive to the Gospel message. Without atonement, there is no redemption. Without redemption, there is no reconciliation. Without reconciliation, the relationship between God and man remains forever broken.


 

What Kind of Mirror?

“I believe all of you, somewhere within your heart, want to be the instruments of God’s power, and therefore, even if you don’t feel like it now, there is buried somewhere in your subconscious the longing to be a man or woman of fervent and effective prayer.” – a quote from John Piper

Man-Kneeling-In-Prayer-Silhouette

John Piper advocates what he calls Christian hedonism which teaches that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. This happens when God’s highest pursuit (His glory) and man’s deepest and most measurable happiness come together in one pursuit – namely, the pursuit of joy in God.

Every one of us is created in God’s image. Each one of us was created to be a conscious mirror of God, reflecting His very character. Before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve had an overwhelming longing to be used by God to carry forth His power and wisdom and love in the world. They wanted to be mirrors of His glory. That longing is buried deep within each of us today. Unfortunately, it has been smothered by sin. In a sense, the quelling is only slight, but it has a dulling effect. The wonderment of a mirror lies in its ability to put one’s face to the light and let that light shine.

The serpent, more crafty than any other beast of the field, tempted Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree that was in the midst of the garden. God warned Eve that consuming the forbidden fruit would cause her to die. The serpent, however, said, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5, ESV) [Italics mine.] But what happened when Adam and Eve ate the fruit? They suddenly became aware that they were naked, and they were ashamed. In order to hide their “reflection,” they made loincloth out of fig leaves.

We want to decide for ourselves which way to turn our faces. “This is my good side.” We want people to esteem us and admire us and compliment us. We loath the idea of being a mirror which does not reflect beauty. We tire of having to turn our face wherever the light wants to go. We want to be our own light. We want to be God. This comes with our fallen humanity. It is the very essence of sin. If honest, you will admit you too have felt this way. But this universal experience of sin is Satan’s distortion of something wonderful: Our pure and righteous longing to be used by God to reflect His glory in the world. Concealed beneath our pride, craving for self-esteem, and our love of power and influence, is a good thing that has been distorted: the longing to be a mirror of God.

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A mirror faces away from itself to its source of light so that it might have some use in the world. A mirror is designed to receive light and channel it for the good of others. The value of a mirror is not in itself, but in its potential to let something else be seen. It is utterly dependent upon the source of light outside itself. Sometimes it seems God shows much more of Himself to some people than to others – but this is not because He is playing favorites. Rather, it has to do with us. The instrument through which we see God is our whole self. And if our self is not kept clean and bright, as with a mirror, then our glimpse of God will be blurred – like the moon seen through a dirty telescope.

God can show Himself as He really is only to real men, who are united together in a body, aware of the importance of all the parts of the body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another. For that is what God meant humanity to be like: musicians in one orchestra, or organs in one body.

“For the body does not consist of one member, but many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (1 Cor. 12:14-20, ESV)

Consequently, the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community looking for Him together. Christian fellowship is, so to speak, the technical equipment for this search. That’s why the false prophets who turn up every few years with some patently simplified religion of their own are really wasting time. He or she may appear to be very clever; may even sound more convincing than the true men of Christ. Matthew 24:24 says, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, the very elect.” (NIV)

When all is said and done, God is the Gospel. Gospel means “Good News.” Christianity, therefore, is not theology but news. But what is the ultimate good in this Good News? It all ends in one thing: God Himself. All the words of the Bible lead to Him. Christ is revealed from cover to cover. “Salvation” is not good news if it only saves us from Hell and not for God. Forgiveness is not good news if it only gives relief from guilt but does not open the way to God. Justification is not good news if it only makes us legally acceptable to God, but doesn’t spark fellowship with God. Redemption is not good news if it only liberates us from bondage, but doesn’t lead us to relationship with God.

Unfortunately, many people seem to embrace the Good News without embracing God. There is no real assurance that we have a new heart – that our image in the mirror has changed – simply because we are motivated to escape Hell. That’s a perfectly natural desire, but it is not a supernatural one. It doesn’t take a new heart to want the psychological relief of forgiveness, or the removal of God’s wrath, or the inheritance of God’s world. All these things are understandable without any spiritual change. You don’t need to be born again to want these things. Even Satan and his minions want them.

Why is this the essence of the Good News? Because we were made in the image of God, to experience full and lasting peace – shalom – and to see and savor the glory of God. He created us in such a way that His glory is displayed through our joy in it. The Gospel of Christ is the Good News that, at the cost of His Son’s life, God has done everything to enthrall us with what will make us eternally and everlastingly happy. Namely Himself. Long before Christ came, God revealed Himself as the true source of full and lasting pleasure. “You made known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11) Then He sent Christ to suffer “that He might bring us to God.”

So here we are: image bearers. The word image means representative likeness. This tells us at once that we should be reflecting, at our creature level, what Genesis 1 shows God to be. We must always act with a godliness that comes from elsewhere, reflected – indeed, imitated – in what we say and do. Our mirror must show others what the face of God looks like. We are to be His hands, His feet, His arms, His words. God generated value by producing what was truly good – so should we. We should be showing love and goodwill toward all other persons. A distinction has to be drawn. We still bear the image of God formally – that is, we still have in us the abilities that, if rightly harnessed, would achieve a fully-righteous, God-like life – and so the unique dignity of each human being must still be recognized and respected as a gesture of honor to our Maker. This is the kind of mirror we are called to be.

The Gospel: Part Three – The Consummation of all Things

Consummation, from a biblical perspective, deals with eschatology. The part of theology concerned with death, judgment and the final destiny of the soul and of all of mankind. It is commonly referred to as the end of the world, or the “end times.” Of course, most modern fiction regarding this topic does not deal with the end of time, but rather with the end of a certain period of time; the end of life as it is now, and the beginning of a new period of time. Most books or films on this subject depict violent disruption or destruction of the world. Christian eschatologies show the end times as the consummation or perfection of God’s creation of the world.

The Book of Revelation is at the core of Christian eschatology. It shows God in control as life moves toward the consummation of a great goal in accordance with the purposes of His will. Man may hinder, deflect, or delay God’s plans, but he cannot destroy them. Righteousness ultimately will win out. Evil will be utterly destroyed. The God of Revelation is the Creator. All who gather around the throne proclaim, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for Thou hast created all things.” (Revelation 4:11) In Revelation 14:7, the angel says, “Fear God and give Him glory, for the hour of His judgment has come. Worship Him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (NIV) He made us. He is with His people. He is guiding the course of human events, and His cause will ultimately be victorious.

The climax of the ages-long conflict between Christ and Satan is depicted in those scenes portraying the woman versus the dragon, the Lamb versus the beast, and Jerusalem versus Babylon. In the climax, there will be only two classes of people: those who receive the seal of God and those who receive the mark of the beast. God’s victory will give the church great assurance. Believers will be comforted and encouraged as they recall how God has upheld His faithful throughout the centuries. He has been the guard and the Great Protector of those in the church who have been loyal and true throughout the eons. He still holds the stars in His right hand. He is still the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

The last battle with be the most spectacular ever seen. Satan and his demons, indeed all his minions, will gather as an army. His opponent? The KING OF KINGS and LORD OF LORDS. According to Isaiah 25:9, “In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in Him, and He saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in Him; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.'” (NIV) The complete work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem the entire creation from the effects of sin. His purpose will not be accomplished until He has ushered in the great new earth; until Paradise Lost has become Paradise Regained. It is through a clear understanding of the doctrine of the new earth in order that we fully see God’s redemptive program in cosmic proportions. God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s Fall.

Old Testament prophesies speak of a glorious future for the earth. We are told that, at some point, the earth will become far more productive and spectacular than we can possibly imagine. The Old Testament views this future redemption as a restoration of life in creation. God picked the Israelites – His chosen people, the apple of His eye – to show the world how He intended it all to work. He gave the Jews specific instructions, shaping every part of their public and private lives. The Law was meant to govern their environment, their economy, their families, their society, their politics, their worship, their everything. As the Israelites submitted to the Law of God, they would show the nations how life was supposed to go. Israel was going to demonstrate to the world how walking as God’s image-bearers under explicit acknowledgment of His sovereignty and majesty, and in complete rhythm with God’s design, worked.

For those of us who know God’s Word, it is obvious Israel did not do so well in this regard. The Old Testament chronicles  their perfecting the art of failure. As they failed time and time again, the prophets among them looked forward to the day when Israel would return to their land,  repent of their sin, and live according to God’s will. In this way, Israel was meant to be a light to all nations. The prophets would speak, often at great length, about all nations being drawn into God’s kingdom until it encompassed the whole earth.  Escape from earth is not the goal. Old Testament Scripture views the destiny of mankind as inseparably linked with life on earth. Jesus affirms this view of salvation. The announcement of Him being God’s kingdom at hand must be placed in this very context.

Jesus was not trying to change Israel’s understanding of a new heaven and a new earth. Rather, the Gospel ministry of Jesus and his disciples shows Jesus operating in the framework of an Old Testament expectation of a new creation. His miraculous deeds demonstrate His healing of a broken world, revealing that the Gospel of the kingdom includes the eradication of disease, poverty, the usurping of death, and the ushering in of a new order. Jesus inaugurated this new kingdom in His first coming, but He hasn’t consummated it yet. We are living today in the tension of this already-not-yet world where Jesus has purchased reconciliation, but consummation still lies ahead. We get a glimpse in Matthew 19:28 when Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (NIV)

Paul’s understanding is also interconnected with the Old Testament’s forecast of a new creation and Jesus’ affirmation. In Romans 8:19-22, Paul relates that even the non-human aspects of God’s creation share in the destiny of God’s chosen people. The ground is cursed because of one man’s disobedience. It groans. It has been subjected to futility. This is not to say that the earth is alive in a pantheistic or paganistic manner, but only that Paul’s metaphorical language refers to the reality that the earth’s brokenness is bound up with man’s sin, and therefore the solution to the earth’s problems is bound up with man’s redemption through Christ.

It is common every day, all over the globe, to see man is suffering at the hands of extreme weather, wildfires, pestilence, famine, drought, evildoers, rampant sinfulness, sexual identity confusion, violence, rape, murder, envy, strife, drug and alcohol addiction, jealousy, theft, and any number of horrific conditions. All of creation groans in anticipation of its own liberation. Jesus is the answer to deliverance of the entirety of creation from the wages of sin. The end goal of redemption is a resurrected body on a new – resurrected – earth. Isaiah 65:17 tells us, “For behold, I create a new heaven and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” [Italics mine.] I love this verse. Having spent nearly forty years in active addiction, and having served three years in state prison, I have seen firsthand the horror of sin. Isaiah prompts me, however, to look forward and envision the day that God will create a new heaven and a new earth, and all the former things – pain, sorrow, difficulty, rebellion, hatred, deliberate infliction of emotional pain will no longer be remembered at all.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21:1-2)

This is the ultimate fruit of the Gospel mission, and it is undoubtedly what Jesus was praying for when He prayed that God’s kingdom would come in such a way that God’s will would be done perfectly on earth as it is done in heaven. Jesus Himself was the answer to this prayer, inaugurating the kingdom through His earthly ministry and testifying that people who place their faith in Him alone will enjoy the blessings of the kingdom’s future consummation, when all the crooked ways are finally made straight.

 

The Gospel: Part Two

THE FALL

The world was made for God’s glory, but His glory in creation was made manifest in man and woman, bearers of His image, who were created to take dominion over creation, to be the crown jewel of the material world. So when sin entered us, it entered the world. Original sin has effects beyond humanity; it affects the world, the cosmos. “The whole creation has been groaning.” (Romans 8:22) This is not just to remind us of the seriousness of rebellion against God, but to indicate that human rebellion against God disrupts the natural order of everything. This is why the Gospel must be explicitly about the restoration of God’s image bearers and also about the restoration of the entire theater of His glory, the cosmos.

There is a vital connection between Adam’s disobedience and the Fall of the very earth itself in Genesis 3, as God pronounces the curse:

“And to Adam He said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the food. By the sweat of your face, you shall eat the bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19, ESV)

The harmony that Adam and Eve enjoyed with God’s creation, the peaceful dominion they were given over it, is not broken. “Cursed is the ground because of you.” The fracture between Adam and creation reflects the fracture between God and Adam. Where Adam’s work was toil-less, it is now toilsome. While the earth was once wonderfully subdued, it now yields grudgingly. Where it was once only fruitful and abundant, it now offers the challenge of thorns and thistles. And while Adam was once bestowed with imperishable flesh, his sin limits the life span of his body. Having rejected God’s blessings, he has chosen to place his hope in the dust from which he was fashioned.

We know Adam and Eve were placed as the crowns of God’s good creation, but as the crown goes, so goes the creation. Their sin brings the curse to us all, and the curse is found far as east is from west. What Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall is often referred to by the Hebrew word shalom. The fullness of this word means peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility. There is a sense of soundness, and an absence of agitation or discord; a state of calm without anxiety or stress. Shalom has been said to be God’s word for total satisfaction in life. This is the abundant life Jesus promised! (John 10:10)

The order God established in creating the universe and us as its inhabitants is certainly reflected in the Law – it is there summarized in the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – but it is bigger than mere legal commands. Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve were stewards of the creation God had given them in a way that accurately reflected God’s glory. The way they cultivated the garden, tirelessly drawing forth from it the very best of fruits, was a reflection of the way God drew forth Adam and Eve’s best. The whole place ran like a well-oiled machine.

Their sin, however, threw a wrench in the gears. The relationship Adam and Eve had with creation itself was broken at the precise moment their relationship with God was broken:

“Therefore the Lord sent him out from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the Garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:23-24)

Today, every person is searching for meaning, significance, and happiness. Man’s pursuit of these ideals can morph into some of the most self-centered and perverse avenues ever known. Whatever label we put on it, however we personally identify with it, we all are seeking fulfillment. And this search for fulfillment alone should tell us that there is an actual fulfillment to be had. Happiness is the driving force behind everything we do. Anything we do has the desire for happiness at its center. Even distasteful things we do are done because we see them ultimately as preferable and more conducive to happiness than the alternatives.

When sin entered the world and fractured it, Romans 1:23 tells us that you and I exchanged the infinite creator God for His creation. We settled for temporary fleeting pleasures rather than for what is eternal and soul-satisfying. Almost all of us, whether we’ll admit it or not, have bought into the philosophy that what we need to finally make us happy is more of what we already possess. This is nuts! It’s all meaningless. After all, God has put eternity into man’s heart. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) At some level, in the deepest parts of our soul, we remember what life was like before the Fall. At some really deep level, our sould has this impression cut into it by the finger of God, like the grooves on a record, encoding the memory of what it was like before sin entered into the world. We remember, at a really deep level, that at one time we were full, and at one time we were happy, and at one time there was nothing weighing us down. Our souls are outright groaning to get back there. We have a God-shaped hole in our soul.

In the end, there is nothing under the sun that brings lasting fulfillment. You have to look beyond the sun. The hole in our soul cannot be filled with the temporal. It demands eternity. Therefore, our very search for more and more, for bigger and bigger, and for better and better, is our sense that something is off, amiss, deformed, and broken. In the same sense that death, pain, insatiable searching tells us that something bigger than the earth itself is missing from our soul.

Sin isn’t just a personal thing; it’s a cosmic thing. While the Gospel shows us that depravity is very personal, that it’s inside our being, it also shows us that depravity affects earth’s very social fabric. The whole thing is messed up. The system and all its parts are lacking. There is no peace or contentment in our hearts. We are cursed; creation is cursed. We are groaning; creation is groaning. The ache is bigger than all of us. Consequently, we need a redemption bigger than all of us.

In looking at the happening and the consequence of the Fall, I cannot help but note Paul’s words in Romans 11:22: “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in His kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” There is sin, and there is judgment, but the Good News is God sought out the sinners. Although he passed sentence, he also promised salvation to come. In many respects, Eden was a type of Canaan or Promised Land. Canaan was a place of beauty; a land of milk and honey. Possession could be had only by obedience to God. Once again, man was faced with a decision to make. What kept Adam and Eve from everlasting blessing was their desire to have pleasure at the cost of unbelief and disobedience.

We all suffer the consequences of the Fall. Our salvation is in calling upon the name of the Lord and trusting in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for our sin. (Romans 5:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18) The world groans under the curse, crying out for the relief that will come at the ultimate redemption of God’s people when Christ returns. (Romans 8:22-23) When Jesus comes for all those who have trusted in Him, God will restore all things. He will create a new heaven and a new earth to replace that which sin destroyed. (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:12-13; Revelation 21:1) Mankind will no longer be “fallen” but restored and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God. (Revelation 7:14)

The Gospel: Part One

Grace is at the heart of the Christian message. The Good News of the Gospel is, at its core, about the death of Jesus Christ as a substitute for you and me. He died in our place. He died the death that we deserved. He bore the punishment that was justly ours. For everyone who believes in Him, Christ took the wrath of God on their behalf. 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.” (NIV) God’s love is different than natural human love. God loved us even when we were unlovable.

Water Color of Crucifixion

When Jesus died, He died for the ungodly, for sinners, and for His enemies. Paul pinpoints the depth of this love when he writes in Romans 5:7, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (NIV) The death of Christ was effective in its purpose. And its goal was not just to purchase the possibility of salvation. It was to claim those who believe in Him. John 6:37-39 says, “All the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those He has given Me, but raise them up at the last day.” (NIV)

The context of the Gospel message is not only about our salvation; the context of the Good News is the supremacy of Christ and the glory of God. Yes, the story is personal, but it is also cosmic. It is important for us to emphasize that not only is there a personal side to the Gospel, there is a social side. The full picture here is that Christ will be set up as the head in all things. Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 1:9-10: “He made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (NIV) Salvation is not merely a subjective experience, a nice feeling, or peace, or whatever it is we are seeking. That is part of it; but there is something more important, namely that the whole universe is involved. We must give the people a conception of this, of the scope and the bounds, and the greatness of the Gospel in this all-inclusive aspect.

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Jesus said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5) In other words, the entire universe is involved. What a wonderful thing to look forward to considering the depth of the sufferings we see in the world today. Paul tells us, “For I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth until now.” (Romans 8:18-22, NIV)

It’s truly amazing to see the comprehensive theme of Christ’s redemption. We all witness the terrible things that go wrong in the world. We know hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis, tornados, horrific wildfires, and other natural disasters can be very bad. We watch endless news reels of terrorist bombings, domestic violence, school shootings, murders, sexual assault, government corruption. In times of such troubles, we may wring our hands and wonder whose sin brought it about. It is easy to say, “Not me. I’m a fairly good person. It must be the gays or the liberals or the commies. Maybe the drug dealers and prostitutes.” We need a scapegoat. That’s human nature. But we don’t stop to consider that all this horror and disaster is directly related to fallenness. The Fall of man that is on the heads of all of us. Paul said all of creation has been subjected to futility, which means creation has been knocked down from where it was supposed to be to where it is now.

In Romans 8 all of creation groans; it’s in the pains of childbirth. I’ve been in the delivery room for the birth of my sons. I experienced the pains only in a secondary fashion. I’ve been in the room to see it, but I have not felt it firsthand. What I can reasonably deduce is that if the pain of childbirth is significant enough that it turns a would-be mother’s idea of, “Yeah, I love this,” into “I don’t want to feel this happening. Give me an epidural now,” it’s got to be pretty heavy.

Our world is longing for and in pain about what it’s supposed to be. The world isn’t capable of feeling pain, of course. Let’s not take a pantheistic notion of the universe being divine or having a personality. The way Paul develops the metaphor in Romans 8 follows a biblical thread where mountains sing and trees clap. Isaiah 55:12 says, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (NIV) When the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke his disciples, Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (RSV) The very natural world itself is responding to the introduction of sin into the world. The world feels.

As we examine what creation is, in all its diversity and wonder, and we ponder how this creation came to be, we must remember that all the complexity and beauty in the universe is not meant to terminate on itself but to trace its origin to the Creator. We can examine the what of creation and grasp to some degree the how, but the why still remains. God created the universe. What He created was good. We should be driven to worship Him as a result of all He has provided. It’s the same when we love a meal at a restaurant. We don’t admire the food, but the creator of the food. The goodness of creation is designed not to declare itself, but to act as a signpost pointing heavenward. This is why Paul can say, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Human beings seem to be created for worship. From sports fanaticism, to obsession with celebrities, to all the other strange sorts of voyeurisms now commonplace in our culture, we prove that we were created to marvel at something beyond ourselves, desire it, like it with zeal, and love it with affection. Our musings, our appetites, and our behaviors are always oriented around something, which means we are always worshipping or attributing worth to something. If it’s not God, we are engaging in idolatry. Regardless, we cannot simply turn the worship switch in our hearts off. Any time we orient our heart around something, we are worshipping that thing. The aim of Scripture is to direct our worship to where it belongs: to the one true God of the universe. The heavens do not declare the glory of themselves. The angels do not sing of their own perpetual beauty and majesty, but rather the glory of God.

We are meant to worship, to give glory to something greater than ourselves. We should therefore interact with the earth in such a way that our hearts and minds are being stirred by its beauty, gracious to God for all He’s given. God’s chief concern is for his own glory. The main point of human life must be regard for God’s glory. That’s the purpose of of God’s creation.

glory

Justification, propitiation, and redemption – all benefits of Christ’s death – have one sole purpose: reconciliation. Jesus’ death enables us to have a joy-filled relationship with God, which is the highest good of the cross. Paul writes, “Once you were alienated from God, and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” (NIV) It works the same way in our daily relationships with other people. When we sin, not only do we hurt the person we sinned against, we harm the relationship. It might never be the same again, especially without our seeking forgiveness. And from my experience, when we hurt the same people again and again, forgiveness is much harder to come by. Thankfully, it is not the same with our relationship with God. We enter this sinful world, and as a result, we’re alienated from God. Only forgiveness – forgiveness which was purchased at the cross – can heal the relationship so that we are able to enjoy fellowship with God.

What is the Gospel?

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

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

Who is Jesus?

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

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

What is the Meaning of His Death?

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

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

The Reality of His Resurrection.

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

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

A Call to Repent.

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

A Call to Believe.

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

Steven Barto