1) Every day will be a new devotional. I have enough devotionals for every day for three years
2) Also as I can, I'll be posting on my new political blog (see bottom of page).
Some other housecleaning:
A) If you'd like to just get new postings sent to your email, just submit your address in the box on the left just below. There's just one possible downside, though. Occasionally I'll add a music video at the end that's relevant to the devotional, and you won't get them in the email sent to you. If I add a video though, I'll make sure to mention in the posting, so you'll know to come to the site to see it if you'd like.
B) I actually finished writing new blog posting for the TAWG at the end of 2016. So what I'm doing now is at the beginning of every month, I'll move the earliest month from 3 years ago ahead so that a "new" posting appears every day. That's why you won't find any postings for January 2014, for example.
C) When I started this Blog, I was using the 1984 edition of the NIV, and that’s what I linked to on the Biblegateway site. However, in 2011 Zondervan updated its edition and thus reworded a lot of the NIV translation. Therefore, all the links which went to the 1984 edition now redirect to the 2011 edition, which often has slightly different wording. Thus, part of my editing process has been to update my Scripture quotes in my postings. But I might have missed some, in which case you might see my quote in the posting as a little different from what comes up when you click on my citation link, since that redirects to the 2011 edition on the Biblegateway site. It's a good thing that we realize that the work of translation never ends, but it can be a kind of a pain on a site like this. If you see any difference in verbiage between my quote and what shows up as a link on the Biblegateway site, or if you hover over a link and it has "NIV1984" at the end of it, please notify me and I'll correct it.
D) I can't believe I have to say this, but here goes. At the end of every posting is a suggested short prayer that has to do with what we discussed. This is actually what I've prayed when I finished writing it. In no way am I asking you to pray the exact verbiage of my suggested prayer. It's just a springboard for your own prayer, nothing more. Quite frankly, I've never been a fan of praying rote prayers written by someone else. As with everything else I do here, to the degree it helps, great; to the degree it doesn't, chunk it.
As always, thank you so much for reading, even if it's to read one post. God bless.
Is it wrong to want to hang out with people who look like you? People who act like you? People who share your values? I’m actually of two minds concerning it. On the positive side, we have to acknowledge that this is nigh-universal behavior. And no, it’s not a white thing or a black thing or an Asian thing or a rich person thing or a poor person thing. It's a human thing. Whether it should be or not, we all have to admit that it is. It seems to be a natural tendency to want to associate with people who are like you.
But is it right? Well, that’s another issue. I think it’s usually a good idea to stretch your boundaries a little and come into contact with folks who are different than you. Maybe. . .gasp!!! Maybe even people who disagree fundamentally with your core beliefs.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Scripture tells us to encourage each other daily, which would entail spending at least some of your time with fellow believers so that you can lift each other up and also challenge each other. And if one of us is flirting with a kooky theological notion, then hopefully his brothers can step in and intervene.
There also might be the issue of falling back into an immoral lifestyle. If you were involved with, say, drunkenness on a regular basis, then it’s probably not the best idea to hang around with heavy drinkers, at least not until you can handle it. If they’re influencing you more than you influencing them, then there’s a problem.
But having said all that, if we’re not associating with people who are deeply involved with sin, then we’re not following the example of our Savior, are we? Today’s reading tells us the story of Jesus’ calling of Levi. We aren’t told of any prior contact with him, so presumably Christ just walked up to the man—while sitting at the tax-collector’s booth—and called him into discipleship. Luke’s account mentions that Levi left “everything” behind, which apparently meant all the money that had been collected. And of course you also know him as Matthew, the writer of the 1st Gospel.
You’re probably heard this before, but it’s hard to overstate just how hated the tax collectors were. Every one of them was a collaborator with Rome, the state that was oppressing them. And on top of that, they regularly collected more than was due, and kept the extra for themselves, flagrantly robbing their fellow Jews.
And this was the type of man whom Jesus called. And what did Levi do? He called all his friends so that they could meet the Master. And what kind of people would be his friends? You can surely guess. Of course other tax collectors, but also Mark notes that “sinners” of other types were there as well—people known to be involved in immoral lifestyles.
And here are two amazing things about this dinner party. First, there’s no mention that the “sinners” were unhappy to be around Jesus. For some reason, he didn’t put them off. And the other amazing thing is that there’s no indication that Jesus was uncomfortable with them.
How do we reconcile this with the fact that Jesus is holy God incarnate? The God who can’t stand sin, like we read about recently? Well, the only explanation that I can offer is the one presented by Jesus himself: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He absolutely hates sin, but he loves the sinners. It’s just like any doctor who loves his patients and hates the cancer that kills them. In fact, he hates the cancer because he loves his patients.
By the way, how do we interpret this distinction he makes between “the righteous” and “sinners”? Are there some people who actually are “righteous”? Not according to Paul: The apostle makes it clear that none of us are righteous, at least as far as God's court of justice is concerned. It makes perfect sense if you imagine the word "righteous" here in quotation marks, in other words referring to people who call and think of themselves as righteous. There are two types of people in the world—Those who know that they’re lost and in desperate need of a Savior, and those who don’t know, who think they're righteous before God. If you don't think or know that you're a sinner in need of a Savior, then Jesus isn't calling you, in the sense that he really has nothing more to say to you until you do. It's the same sense in which AA has nothing to say to you until you admit that you have a problem with booze.
As a preacher I heard once put it, Jesus doesn't call white people or black people, men or women, Americans or Brazilians or Chinese or whatever other identity you have. He calls only one type of people: Sinners. And if you come to him, that's the only basis on which you're going to do so, bringing nothing to this meeting except your sin and your need.
I can see how this applies to us, can’t you? First, this is a reminder that I need to take any notion of self-righteousness and drive a stake through its heart. My sins are not as public as some folks’, but I need the blood of Christ as much as anyone else. Second, I think it’s time for me to pray for opportunities to stretch my “comfort zone.” Or maybe I just need to pray for eyes to see the opportunities he’s already placed in front of me.
Lord Jesus, where do you want me to go? Who needs to be told about and shown your love?
This passage will always hold a special place in my heart, since it’s the one that I was forced to expound upon for one of my Bible courses in college. I had to dissect these verses word-by-word. I had to examine at least five different commentaries and cite them frequently. I had to do a study on the background of leprosy and what this man probably experienced in that community and during that time. I also had to cite other Bible verses (like from Leviticus) which gave commands concerning situations like this. In spite of all this, it’s still one of my favorite passages in all the Gospels. Let’s take a look.
I think it’s hard to overestimate the misery that this man had undergone for as long he had this disease. By the way, it’s likely not referring to what we think of in terms of modern leprosy: The Greek and Hebrew both used general terms which could apply to all types of contagious skin diseases. But whatever the disease was, it completely sealed this man off from everything and everyone he held dear. If he walked down a street, he had to call out “Unclean! Unclean!” in order to warn everyone to stay away. Little children would run screaming from him. He would have no contact with his family. He was completely dependent on the charity of others, since there was no way he could ever hold a job. And of course he could forget about ever entering the temple to worship with others. He undoubtedly had to live outside the town, and the only companions he would have would be other outcasts. For someone in that culture, which prized family connections so highly, this would be a living hell.
And then the man heard about Jesus. He pled with the Master to heal him. And here’s something that’s especially poignant. Mark’s Gospel is the only one that specifically mentions that Jesus was “moved with pity.” He saw this man’s plight, and was moved to do something about it. And then all the Synoptic versions of the story tell us that the Savior did something extraordinary in response: He reached out and touched him.
Why would he do this, and why would the Gospel writers point it out? Keep in mind that this man needed more than just physical healing. He'd been cut off from all human contact, possibly for years. No one had touched him. He needed emotional healing as well as physical restoration. And Jesus, moved by compassion, reached out and touched him.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting, at least to me. If you had to do so, you could sum up the entire Old Testament Law with one word: separation. The people of Israel were to be separate from the Gentiles around them. You had clean and unclean food, houses, animals, and clothing. Yes, you couldn’t mix different fabrics in your clothes. You couldn’t mix different crops in your garden. You had holy vs. common days of the year. You had holy vs. common people (priests vs. laity). And worst of all, you had clean and unclean people. Most people would be unclean at some time in their lives, if only for a short period. Women were unclean a few days out of the month, and a man could be unclean if he visited a grave site. Most of the time, you washed yourself, avoided human contact, and couldn’t enter the temple for a day or so. If you touched someone or something, then your uncleanness was spread like a disease. And if you were leprous, you were probably going to be unclean for the rest of your life.
And then Jesus arrives, and the whole process is reversed. He reached out and touched the man, and the uncleanness of the leper didn’t infect him. Instead, the Savior's “cleanness” spread to the man. For the first time in recorded history, the horrible process of spreading uncleanness was not just quarantined off but reversed.
And it didn’t stop there. Jesus had a heart for those whose uncleanness was on the inside instead of out. The prostitute, the tax collector, and the swearing fisherman all experienced this. And when he died, the curtain separating the holy presence of God from the rest of us was torn in two. Not from bottom to top (as if a human could accomplish it) but from top to bottom.
And this Great Reversal is supposed to be reflected in our lives as believers as well. All too often, believers take an O.T. approach to "unclean" people: We quarantine them off from us, lest they spread their infection. I understand the concern: We can't let ourselves be dragged into other peoples' sin. I get that. But the coming of Jesus brings a new era, a whole new paradigm of how to deal with this, Our ultimate goal is not to seal ourselves off from unclean people but to be agents of the cleanness of our Savior to people who need him. After all, salt does no good still in the shaker, and a candle can't light up a room if it's under a bowl. Light is meant to invade darkness, and salt is meant to be mixed in with food, right?
Am I following that principle? Not nearly as much as I should. All too often I find myself slipping into the O.T. method--quarantine--rather than participating in the Great Reversal. And I'm making the effort to do that.
And the first sign of it that we see in Mark’s Gospel is a poor leper begging for relief.
Thank you, Lord Jesus. I was once was as filthy as I could be, but you cleansed me with one touch. Let me just meditate on that for a moment. And then, please let me be your agent of spreading your cleansing power everywhere I go.
If you’re new to this and are wondering why I skipped some verses in Mark, then you should know something: This is a devotional, not a commentary. Between last year and this one, we’re going to at least read most of the Gospels. But in order to avoid repeating myself, we’re going to skip over some passages which will be covered in other studies.
I have to admit, however, that this is one of the most convicting passages in Scripture for me. Since the name of this blog is the TAWG, let’s spend a few minutes talking about that, shall we?
First off, we should note that there’s no specific command to spend time alone with God on a daily basis. We’re commanded to encourage each other daily as siblings in Christ. But I can’t tell you that we’re commanded to spend time alone with him daily. And since a lot of (or most) people who've been exposed to God's word have been illiterate, it wouldn't have been practical for him to issue a universal command to read the Bible every day.
But there are plenty of reasons to have some type of time alone with God every day. Since all of Scripture is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” then I think it would be a good idea to have a plan to systematically read all the way through it. Personally, my wife and I are on a 3-year plan, and (God willing) we’ll finish it next year. If you get into a routine of reading God’s word at least once a day, that seems like a good idea. And of course you’d want to spend at least a few moments in prayer, asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit and putting yourself in the proper frame of mind for listening to what he wants to say.
This needs some clarification, however. Although it’s great to have at least a few minutes each day in seclusion with your Father, that doesn’t limit you in how often you speak with him during the day. You can pray anywhere (just keep your eyes open while driving), and if you keep a copy of your Bible handy--and if you have a smartphone, then you always have it handy--then all the better.
Now let’s get to my least favorite aspect of this--the time when to do it. There’s no doubt about it: Our Savior was an early riser when it came to spending time alone with the Father. In fact, he literally was up before dawn in order to do this. There are really good arguments for doing this, of course. The pace and atmosphere of your day is set within the first fifteen minutes. If you spend the first few minutes grumbling and complaining about having to go into work and deal with that boss again, then you’ve got a negative day before you even start. But if you spend a few minutes alone with the Father in private worship, prayer, and Bible-reading, then that also will set the tone for your day.
But let me make a confession here. I don't normally have my full TAWG at the beginning of the day. I’m very much a night-owl, and that’s my most productive time. In the morning my brain takes a while to get up to full speed, and I wouldn’t get much use out of a full Bible study. So I do the next best thing—I pray for just a few moments, then go into my day. I reserve my full one-on-one time with my Savior for when my brain can actually focus on what we’re doing.
But let me close with this. No matter what time of day you do it, it’s best to be consistent. Try to find a time and place where there are a minimum of distractions. If you wanted to have an intimate talk with your spouse, then you probably wouldn’t want to do it while dodging cars during the morning commute or in the middle of a crowded restaurant. You’d find some privacy, so you could concentrate on what both of you are saying. It’s the same with this.
Right now your Father wants to say something to you. It might be a word of comfort for you during your struggle. It might be a nudge in a new direction for your life. It might concern a sin that you committed and never confessed, which will slowly drain you of your joy and peace. If you don’t slow down for a little bit, how would you ever know? Listen.
Yes Lord, I’m listening. Please slow me down. Please give me listening ears and a soft heart, so that you can change me.
After the calling of Jesus’ first apostles, Mark records that they went to Capurnaum, which was a major city in Galilee. Although his ministry was mainly among the Jewish people, much of his time was actually spent in Galilee, well-known for its Gentile population and considered to be a center of loose morals. It wasn’t for nothing that it was called “Galilee of the Gentiles,” and I assure you that this wasn’t a compliment. So this was the type of people Jesus liked to hang around with. . . hmmmmm.
They attended synagogue (as was Jesus’ habit on the Sabbath), and our Lord was invited to teach. But there in the middle of the service stood up a man who wasn’t alone inside his body.
Do I believe that demonic possession is/was real? Absolutely. Does it seem that it was more prominent back in Jesus’ day than today? I believe so. Please keep in mind, of course, that the rest of the world has no problem accepting things like possession. Once you leave the U.S., it gets a lot more common, especially among people who are actively involved in the worship of spirits. But even with this in consideration, it seems to be more concentrated in that era than today. I personally believe that it was specifically because the Son of God had arrived. Once the King showed up, it was an open declaration of warfare, so of course the Enemy stirred up his forces in open opposition.
So we need to keep in mind that there is a Devil, and he’s active in the world today as surely as he was back then. It seems that he’s more subtle now than he was during that time, though. I mean, think about it--He doesn’t need to possess people. I once heard someone compare him to a pawn shop owner: He claims all the unredeemed. Why should he possess a guy if he owns him outright?
But in this case a poor soul was being tormented by a demon, a servant of the Enemy. Why was he there in a synagogue during the service? My theory is that he was hoping to disrupt Jesus’ teaching. I find his response to Christ’s presence to be very enlightening, however. To the human eye, this teacher from Nazareth was an ordinary man. Probably he had dirt under his fingernails, his hands were calloused from physical labor, and his clothes were undoubtedly nothing to notice.
But that’s not what the demon saw! He saw the Son of God, the One who threw his master out of heaven and whose very presence burned into him like a magnifying glass on an ant during a summer day. I just find it sad and humorous that most of the time the people in a town who knew him best were those possessed by demons.
I called today’s reading “First Round” since this is the first clash between the two great Kingdoms which is recorded in Mark’s Gospel. What happened out in the wilderness wasn’t a clash of forces as much as a temptation to take the easy way, the shortcut. This was the first (recorded) time in which Jesus’ power and Satan’s power came head-to-head. But really calling it a “clash” is a misnomer as well. I guess if you want to call what happens when you flip a light switch a “clash” between light and darkness, then you could do the same here. As soon as light steps in, the darkness flees as quick as it possibly can.
I find that really comforting, don’t you? We talk about the “struggle” between God’s Kingdom and Satan’s Kingdom, as if they’re two opposite and equal forces which are contesting control of everything. No, they’re not equal. Even before the Cross and the Resurrection, there wasn’t a real fight between the two.
And if I belong to Christ through faith in him, then I’m definitely on the right side of history. It doesn’t ultimately matter what battles we’re fighting right now, and it doesn’t even matter which battles it seems that we’re losing. The war’s won.
Lord Jesus, I thank you that your victory is my victory. I’m your co-heir, and that means something glorious. Can we see some more of that spilling over into my line of sight?
Shortly after Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist was arrested and put into prison, from which he would never leave alive. Once his cousin was imprisoned, Jesus apparently stepped up his ministry considerably. The “opening act” was heading off stage, so now was the time for the “main event” to take front and center. Here are some notes which I’ve gleaned:
• We have here the essence of the Good News of God: repent and believe. If anyone thought that Jesus’ message was “grace” while John’s was “law,” they were sadly mistaken. Now the wait was over. The object of millions of prayers over hundreds of years had arrived. When Jesus was talking about the “time” was here, he wasn’t just referring to a chronological time, like the time of an event. This is the time of decision. The time for fence-sitting was over.
• And what was this “Good News”? There’s no mention of a specific message in Jesus’ announcement. That’s because he is the Good News. It’s almost like he’s saying “We’ll fill in the details later. But for now, you need to know that the Good News is standing right in front of you!”
• Along with everything else, this apparently was the time to recruit brother fishing teams into his Kingdom work. He first called Andrew and Peter. Andrew was already a follower of John the Baptist, so it looks like he and his brother returned to fishing after John’s arrest. Then the Lord called James and John, later nicknamed “the sons of Thunder.” It’s interesting that they left not only their commercial business (like Andrew and Peter) but also their father behind. It’s difficult to overestimate how shocking this would be to people in that culture: To leave one’s own father and the family business on the word of some crazy Rabbi. And obviously it was pretty profitable, since they had “hired men” as well.
• If you’ve heard it from a sermon or elsewhere, then I apologize, but it’s worth repeating—Jesus’ calling was “Follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.” If you aren’t fishing, then you aren’t following.
I think that it would be good to do a quick definition and study of this term “Kingdom of God,” which is repeatedly used in the Gospels, usually by Jesus. It’s a term for the rule of God on earth. There are three phases. First, the Kingdom appeared in the sense that the King was now present. He was the Kingdom Incarnate. Second phase is right now: As children and subjects of God’s Kingdom, we’re called to expand that Kingdom from Heaven down here to earth. You could say that everywhere Christians exist, a “colony” of Heaven is supposed to appear. And the final phase is when Christ appears at the end of history and sets up his Kingdom on earth.
So here are some possible applications for us from today’s passage. First, have you repented and believed in the Good News from God? Second, are you willing to leave behind family, your livelihood, and everything you’ve ever known, just on the word of Jesus? And third, have you been establishing a “colony of Heaven” in your home, your work, and in your circles of influence? If your answer is “Not as much as I should,” then join the club.
Lord Jesus, I know that I’m supposed to be planting your flag everywhere I go, but I don’t do that nearly often enough. Use me as your standard bearer, please.
I don’t know if this is important to you, but you ought to know that (God willing) we’re going to spend the rest of the year in the New Testament. The plan is to go through Mark, Luke, and Acts through December. Along the way we’ll take short diversions into topical studies, such as the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, the Church, and possibly some others. Hope you’ll stick with me for the ride.
So we come to Mark, the shortest of the Gospels. Here are some notes about it:
• Church tradition is unanimous that it was written by John Mark, the cousin to Barnabas whose story is laid out in more detail in the book of Acts. He was well-known among the Church fathers as a close associate of Peter’s. Church tradition also says that Mark’s main source for his Gospel was in fact Peter’s preaching.
• There’s some dispute regarding this among Bible scholars, but the best evidence seems to indicate that this is the earliest Gospel, possibly written around the 50’s or early 60’s.
Here are some emphases which we’ll find here:
• Action! This Gospel spends a lot less time recording Jesus’ words and a lot more time recording his actions—especially miracles. You might notice he repeatedly uses the word “immediately” to introduce another section. There’s very little teaching in Mark’s Gospel which isn’t repeated in one or more of the others.
• It’s pretty obvious that its main audience were Gentiles, since he explains Jewish customs and translates words from the Aramaic (the language Jesus used) into Greek.
• It also seems that he has in mind persecuted Christians, hence the topic of persecution and serving Christ unto death. Therefore his Gospel would be meant as a source of encouragement and challenge to believers who were undergoing this.
• Succinct. Mark summarizes and “squeezes down” large portions of stories for his readers. Notice how short is Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and temptation compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s.
• Jesus as Servant. Each of the Gospels provide a portrait of Jesus with a different (not contradictory) emphasis of who Jesus was and is. In this Gospel Mark presents his Lord as the One sent to serve us. Of course, the ultimate display of this was at Jesus’ Passion.
Based on what we know about John the Baptist, I think he would've considered this version of his story his own personal favorite. It gives him a short introduction, tells how he baptized Jesus, and then from that point forward the Messiah is center stage. Any attention that John received he immediately tried to turn into attention towards his Savior, which is a great lesson for us all.
I think we can learn a lot from how the Gospels are similar, since that shows what was important to them. But I also find it interesting to note how they differ. For example, of the three versions of Jesus’ temptation, this is the only one that points out that he was with “the wild animals” out in the wilderness. Why would Mark note this? Why would it be important to him? Because many in his original audience were being fed to these animals as a public spectacle. Out in the middle of nowhere, where there were predators about, Jesus was perfectly safe. Not just because he was God in the flesh, but also because he was right in the center of the Father’s will. So Mark was saying to his audience “Remember, God’s still sovereign over everything. Whatever trial you’re facing, even if it kills you, is under the supervision of the Father. Trust him.”
And I think that’s a great reminder for us. Probably you’re not being fed to literal lions, but it might feel like that at times. I’m sure that there are people reading this who are going through problems which are much worse than mine. But please remember—Your Father is still in control. He’ll bring you to the other side of this. Just trust him.
Lord Jesus, please help me to keep this in mind. I do trust you—most of the time. Please help me to completely cast myself into your strong hands.
Today we finish our study on soteriology (why are you applauding?), and I’m going to wrap it up with a short discussion on God’s part in sanctification. Remember that sanctification is the process in which we become more like Christ in the way we think, talk, and act. We’ve gone over our part pretty extensively, and it's not rocket science: Spending time alone with God in reading his word and prayer, utilizing the church, and taking the practical steps you need in order to avoid sinful habits. But what’s God’s part in all this? What does he do?
Well, we know that he uses trials and discipline to grow us, but what does he do on the inside of us? The interesting thing is that there isn’t a lot in Scripture about this. There’s some, but not a lot of details. Quite frankly, the above passages were what I could find. Let’s take them one at a time. Before I go any further, however, I have to acknowledge that a lot of this material comes from Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges, which I can’t recommend highly enough.
The Titus passage is one of my favorites in all Scripture, since it summarizes Christian belief so concisely. There’s not a lot that isn’t mentioned here: God’s grace in salvation, our sanctification, the Blessed Hope (I love that phrase), and why Jesus came in the first place and what’s his grand purpose for us. But I want to focus on one thing in particular here. Paul first talks about God’s grace that’s appeared to all men in bringing salvation. But what does he say next? That “It” teaches us to say “no” to the wrong things and “yes” to the right things. What’s “it”? The pronoun refers back to “grace.” In other words, the same grace that saves us also teaches us to be holy. There's saving grace and then there's sanctifying grace. When you were saved, more than just a transaction occurred. The Holy Spirit came to live inside you; this is one of the greatest gifts that the Father has given us, and now that Gift is working inside you and instructing you in holiness. This is grace that--in contrast to saving grace--we can grow in.
What do the verses in Philippians tell us? We are told to work out (not “for”) our salvation. The salvation that’s inside you is supposed to overflow into the physical world so that others can see it. What’s the Force behind this “working out” process? It’s God (in the Holy Spirit) who gives you both the motivation (“to will”) and the strength (“to act”) according to his purposes.
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, then you know what I’m referring to. You’re tempted to do something wrong, and there’s a voice inside you that says “You shouldn’t do that.” Or someone in need is in front of you, and this voice says “Step forward and help that person.” My friend, that’s not just your conscience telling you that. It’s the Holy Spirit moving within you, causing you to want to be obedient.
And Paul says that God is moving within you to act as well. When you don’t feel like doing more service, or you don’t think you can resist that temptation any longer, you can. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (think about that power) now lives inside you, and he'll give you the strength you need.
And it’s the Spirit that produces fruit as well. Fruit is not formed by the tree “trying harder” or “putting more effort into it.” If the tree has the proper amount of water, sunlight, and nutrients from the soil, it’ll produce the fruit that its genetic structure determines. As we “keep in step with the Spirit” (which is our part again), he’ll produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
How exactly does he do this? I don’t know, but I do know that he uses the means of our cooperation. As we do our part, he’ll do his. And over time, you (and other people) will see a change. And you’ll be amazed at what his transforming grace can do.
Father, thank you for your Spirit who’s changing me. I’m not what I should be, but I’m not what I used to be, and I’m not all that I will be. Please give me what I need to change.
Yesterday we talked about assurance of salvation and how John tells us we can have it. You need to have the right belief (in Jesus) and right love (towards siblings in Christ). Now we come to the third test, the real kicker.
I need to write this out very carefully, and I plead with you to read it carefully as well. If there’s no change in your desire to please your Father which eventually works itself out into a changed lifestyle, then you have no assurance. I mean, there are plenty of verses in this book which make me wince every time I see them:
• We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
• No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
• No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.
I really need to spend some time clarifying this. The same author who wrote the above statements also said this: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” and “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives."
We still sin as Christians. John said it. So how do we reconcile this? It’s the direction of your life that John’s addressing, not whether you’re committing this sin or that sin. Do you want to please your Father? Are you taking the steps necessary to deal with areas of disobedience? Is there growth? Is there improvement? Are you in the process of becoming like Christ? Do you see sin as the enemy of your soul?
There are a couple of other caveats that we need here. First, this is a process, not an instantaneous change. Yes, some people do undergo an overnight 180 degree change in their lifestyle. They were a drug addict or were sexually promiscuous, and the Lord grabbed a hold of them and they never did those things again. Of course, the first example of this that comes to mind is Paul, who immediately went from a hateful persecutor of Christians into the foremost spokesman for the faith. For most of us, however, the change is a lot more gradual.
Also we need to realize that this is a lifelong process. I recognize that there are some teachers out there who claim that it’s possible to be sinless in this life. I don’t buy it. Besides the 1 John verses we read above, Paul also confessed that he was a work in progress, that he hadn’t been made perfect yet. If you want to hear a more extended argument in favor of this position, I deal with it here.
I have so much respect for John Wesley that it’s not even funny. He founded the Methodist church and was one of the godliest men of his entire generation. The Lord used him in incredible ways. He believed and taught that it’s possible for a Christian to live a sinless life here on earth. But do you know what? On his deathbed he confessed that there was still sin that he was dealing with.
So how does this relate to the “backsliding believer”? If you’ve been a Christian long enough, you’ll see him: Someone who supposedly received Christ as Savior and Lord, and who now lives like the Devil. He’s completely abandoned any claim to be following Christ, and is actively disobedient. Well, based on today’s passages, what do you think John would say to him?
I want to end this with a word of hope. I know that someone reading this is going to get hit with a guilt trip right now. You’re thinking “I’m struggling with that sin, so obviously I’m not saved.” If so, you’ve missed my point entirely. A lost man doesn't struggle with sin any more than a fish "struggles" with the water in which he swims. If you’re struggling with a certain sin that doesn’t seem to go away, take heart. That’s exhibit A that you do belong to Christ. Keep working on it, and do what you need to do to improve. And eventually you’ll look back and see that he's carried you further than you ever thought possible.
Lord Jesus, sometimes it’s so disappointing to see how little progress I’ve made. You truly are the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. I am soooooo glad of that!
Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about repentance? I mentioned the controversy started by some teachers/preachers who taught that it’s possible for someone to believe in Jesus as their Savior and yet reject him as their Lord. Let’s talk a little more about that today, because it affects the aspect of soteriology we’re going to discuss, namely assurance of salvation.
How do you know that you’re saved, that you’re really going to heaven? You might say, “I walked down an aisle, said a prayer with someone, and I even got baptized. Isn’t that enough to know that I’m ‘in’?” Um, no. This is why I tried to emphasize before that it’s not the prayer that saves you, it’s the faith in Christ that saves you. That prayer, at best, is an official way to declare in your own mind and before all the earthly and spiritual witnesses around you as to what you’re doing, and it helps for you to understand exactly what’s happening. Those words are not some magical incantation that you have to get exactly right.
Let’s be clear here, like the Bible is: You're saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. But how do you know that this faith is genuine? How do you know that you weren’t fooling yourself (and everyone else around you)?
That’s what we mean by the term assurance of salvation, and that’s where the controversy I mentioned comes in. Advocates of what they call “Free Grace” position (which claims that you don’t need repentance) say that all that’s needed is an acknowledgement of certain facts about Christ: He died for your sins, he rose from the dead, etc. Advocates of “Lordship Salvation” (like me) claim that there are some other criteria that need to be met. If not, then the Bible offers you no assurance.
The book of 1 John, like his Gospel, has an explicit purpose stated right there for you: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Yes, there are other issues, like Gnosticism (don’t worry about it if you aren’t familiar with it), but that’s his openly stated goal for this book. He wrote this so that genuine believers would know that they have eternal life. And as you read the rest of his letter, it's obvious that the converse is true as well: He wants to warn people who've fooled themselves to turn away from false assurance. He has three tests for you to take so that you can know that you’re actually a redeemed child of God.
First, there are right beliefs. Yes, that is necessary. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ, but that does include knowing certain things about him. For example, John says that we need to understand that Jesus came into the flesh from the Father. We also need to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Second, there’s the right love. In fact, this is the test that he harps on the most in his letter. It's impossible for you to belong to God and hate your brothers in Christ. You have to love your siblings in Christ, and you need to demonstrate it through practical service. If you don’t, no assurance.
The third is the right lifestyle. I tell you what, let’s get into that tomorrow, since that’s something that needs some time to do it any justice. I think we’ve gone into enough for us to absorb today, right?
Father, I believe that I belong to you. You’ve claimed me as your child, and I thank you. I want to show that, please.
Yesterday we studied the difference between indicative and imperative statements. As far as God is concerned, we’ve been crucified with Christ and are now reigning with him in heaven—That’s indicative. Now we need to let that change us in our daily lives—That’s a command.
As you read the N.T. letters, especially Paul’s, you’ll see this pattern emerging: “X is true, therefore you need to do Y.” We’ve been justified (declared not guilty in God’s court), so now we need to cooperate with him in the area of becoming like Christ. This lifelong process is called sanctification. Literally it means “setting apart.” You were set apart for Christ positionally at the moment of salvation. He’s laid claim to you, and the Enemy's lost you for all time. Because of--and starting with--that one moment, the Lord's begun the process of setting you apart in how you live.
Today’s passage is a great example of what I’m talking about. When you’re studying the Bible, by the way, take note of the prepositions. Every word of God to us has been preserved for a reason, including “therefore,” “Since then,” “For,” etc. Notice the sentence structure here: Because you’ve been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Notice that the process of becoming like Christ begins with your thought life. Your actions and words will follow your thought life sooner or later. It starts with saturating your mind with God’s truth. It’s just like yesterday, where Paul told us to consider ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God.
Then you put to death what belongs to your sinful nature, such as sexual immorality, greed, lust, etc. You also need to rid yourself of bad habits which the world tends to celebrate, such as malice, slander, and filthy language and (unjust) anger. What’s the next step? Well, it’s a law of physics as well as in the spiritual realm: Nature abhors a vacuum. You can’t just remove things from your life and expect it to improve. You have to “take off” the bad stuff and “put on” the good stuff, like compassion, kindness, humility, patience and forgiveness.
So how do I do this? Well, the first step is in studying God’s word on a regular basis. And no, listening to a sermon on Sunday morning does not qualify as “a regular basis.” We studied before how his word changes us, and there’s no growth without it.
Second there’s obviously prayer. You need to spend some one-on-one time with him, talking to him as well as listening—actually most of us probably need to listen a lot more than we talk. You need to ask him to point out areas of your life that need to be surrendered to him, and ask for his help in changing.
Third, you have to—you absolutely must—utilize the Church. Christ has given us his body to provide what we need: encouragement, accountability, and challenge. Most of the time that’s his method for pointing out cracks in my armor.
And finally you have to take the practical steps to change. If you have a problem with alcoholism, then set up an accountability partner to keep you sober. Stay clear of bars and other places where you drink. Way too often we treat sin like a sexy ex-girlfriend, someone we keep on our speed dial just in case we change our mind later. No, we need to treat it like a mortal enemy that’s stalking us.
If you were looking for some secret magical formula, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I just want to make something clear, though. I’m just as much a work in progress as any of you. My sins might be different than yours, but they’re no less serious. Now if you don’t mind, I need to go practice some of what I've preached. . .
Lord Jesus, from beginning to end I need you. I need you to save me, to guide me, to protect me, and to change me. Only you can do that. Just show me what I need to do, and please give me what I need to do it.
I’m a practical theologian, but I’m still a theologian, so a lot of teaching and preaching makes me wince. Most preachers are well-intentioned, but they need to be a little more careful in what they’re saying. For example, I’ve actually heard some of them tell their congregation that we need to “die to sin.” I understand what they’re trying to do, but their hermeneutics needs a little work.
What I’d like to introduce today is a bit of grammar, namely the difference between indicative mood and imperative mood. Please don’t zone out on me—This is really important, and apparently some Bible teachers can’t seem to get it either. Hey, you can get a leg up on some of them!
Here’s a refresher course for those of us who took High School English a long time ago (and didn’t really care while we were taking it). Indicative mood is used to say something is or is not a fact: “It’s going to rain today.” “My name is not Bill Gates.” In contrast, imperative mood is used to give a command to do something or not to do something: “Go brush your teeth.” “File these reports for me.” "Don't eat without first washing your hands."
So here’s a pop quiz. Which one is this: “Jesus died on the cross in order to pay the penalty for your sins”? And which one is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Got it?
So let’s take a closer look for a moment at the passage for today. Do you remember what the term antinomian means? If you don’t, then don't feel bad: Most people outside of theological circles don’t either. But it’s a good word to keep in mind. Literally it means “no law”; it’s the nutty notion that a Christian doesn’t need to be concerned at all about his lifestyle. He can live a life of disobedience and still make it to heaven. Paul in today's reading is addressing the charge that his message leads to antinomianism. We’re saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing, right? So why shouldn’t I just trust in Christ and live however I please?
Here’s Paul’s answer in a nutshell: You can’t do that. No, he’s not saying (in this passage) that you shouldn’t do that. He’s saying that it’s impossible for you to do that, like it's impossible for you to lift a car over your head and fly into the air like Superman. Let’s take it piece by piece.
He starts out by presenting the charge: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” The “By no means” phrase is the strongest possible negative in the Greek language. There’s no exact counterpart in an English translation: The closest would be “HECK No!” without the editing.
But what’s his reasoning here? What's keeping us from sinning however we like? Notice the mood. He gives some indicative statements, like we did a couple of days ago—You died to sin, you were raised with Christ, your sinful nature was done away with once and for all, etc. All of these are factual statements. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to die to sin.
So what are his commands here? Count or consider yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God. You’re dead to sin, so act like it! Don’t let sin act like your master, because it isn’t! Be who you are!
Second, he commands us "[Do] not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires." Don't let sin control you. Don't listen to it.
And finally we're commanded to make an offering. Not a dead animal--God has no further interest in dead animals any more--but now (as we'll see in Chapter 12) he wants a living sacrifice. Because we're dead to sin and alive to God (fact) therefore we must offer ourselves no longer to sin but to the One who did all this for you. Your body (including your mind) is no longer to be an instrument of sin but rather an instrument in his hands. You belong to him now.
Let me submit the best illustration I’ve ever heard on this subject. Right after the Civil War, we officially passed a series of constitutional amendments that freed all the slaves and made them citizens. Slavery was now illegal anywhere in the United States. Blacks could now leave the plantation and go where they pleased. According to the Constitution, the highest law of the land, a black man was equal to a white man. But leaving aside the shameful way whites treated freed blacks, did all the ex-slaves suddenly start acting like free and equal people? Of course not. A lot of them stayed on the plantation for years or never left at all; they'd been born on the plantation and this was all they knew. Even if they were encouraged to leave, freedom was scary. So even though they were legally freed, it took a while for that reality to manifest in their daily life.
It’s the same with us. We were once slaves to sin, but now we’re freed. There’s a charter signed in Jesus’ own blood. We’re dead to sin and alive to God. Sin isn't our master anymore. Quite frankly, some days it’s hard to tell. But Paul’s admonition still stands: These things are true, so you need to act like it.
We’ll probe a little more into how to do this tomorrow, but for today I want you to fully grasp these truths: You are dead to sin and alive to God. Your sinful nature was crucified with Christ once and for all. Sin shall no longer be your master, because you’re not under the law but under grace. We’ve had a change of management. Once you’ve digested this truth into your inmost being, you’ve started on the road to being who you really are.
As Paul put it so well in another epistle, "[Let] us live up to what we have already attained."
Father God, I know that all these things are true, but it’s really hard sometimes to live up to it. Thank you that I don’t have to do this alone. You are with me, aren’t you?
Yesterday we talked about how God sees us in Christ, and that we’re identified with him permanently. But the Bible says a lot of things about me as a believer that I don’t see in my daily experience. In order to explain this discrepancy, I’m going to introduce you to a concept you might not be familiar with, but I assure you it’s thoroughly biblical.
It’s called position vs. condition, and this tension (not contradiction) is nowhere better found than in the verse for today's reading. As we read through the passages below, hopefully you'll see what I'm talking about. If something I say seems a little kooky, then read the passage that’s associated with it. Otherwise, read whatever you have time to absorb today. I realize that there’s a lot to go over here, and you’re busy people. But it’s very important that you and I agree that I'm making up absolutely none of this, that this is all completely and clearly based on what the Scriptures say. So here we go. . .
Your position in Christ has some of the following characteristics:
• As we saw yesterday, you’re crucified, buried, risen, and ascended with Christ.
• You’re dead to sin and alive to God. Sin has been done away with, once and for all.
• You’re an heir of God and a co-heir with Christ.
• You’re completely without sin, since you possess the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.
• You’re forgiven now and forever, and he’ll never bring those sins up again in terms of judgment. and condemnation.
• He’s with you always, every moment of every day, and he’ll never leave you nor forsake you.
• You belong to Christ.
• This determines your eternal home.
• This was all settled, once and for all, at the moment of salvation (or before, at the beginning of time).
• This is completely dependant on who Christ is and what he did (and is doing).
• It has nothing to do with your performance. Nothing you ever do or fail to do, now or in the future, will ever change anything that has to do with the above statements at all.
This is in contrast to your condition:
• You obviously still deal with sin. Once you think that you’ve got one under control, the Spirit brings another one to your attention that he wants to work on.
• Obviously you’re still living here on earth, not in heaven next to Jesus.
• Your condition can change on a moment-by-moment basis. You have to make the decision daily (or even more often) to do things God’s way instead of your own.
• He’s provided the resources you need (his word, prayer, the church, etc.) but you have to choose to avail yourself of them.
• Your condition (as we’re discussing it here) is (at least partially) dependant on your performance.
• This determines how abundant a life you’re going to lead. On this depends lots of things like your joy, your peace, your sense of fulfillment, and your sense of assurance of your position in Christ.
• If you aren’t doing things God’s way, then he’ll seem distant. The sense of his smiling presence won’t be there.
• If you’re not doing things God’s way, then as your Father, he can and will discipline you to get your attention. This can be as unpleasant as you make it, and it can be pretty harsh. It can include physical ailments, up to and including physical death.
• What’s at stake here? Not your eternal home but your eternal rewards.
So here’s how the two go together. For the position stuff, you have to take it on faith. You believe that Christ was crucified and rose from the dead, right? Well, the same Bible that tells you about that also tells you the things I listed as the first points. You might not feel like you’re dead to sin, but you have to trust God’s word that it’s true.
That's why I said that the one verse in Hebrews which is our main verse for the day encapsulates this concept perfectly. Talking about Christ, the author of Hebrews says that by one sacrifice (on the cross) he has perfected forever (position, past tense, a done deal already) those who are being made holy (something that's a process, a change, therefore your condition as I've used the term). If you say that your being made holy today somehow caused Christ to perfect you forever 2000 years ago, that makes no sense to me, unless you have a time machine stashed away somewhere. No, the only way that this verse makes sense is that the sign that he's already made you perfect forever--once and for all--is that you're currently in the process of being made holy.
And here’s the kicker: Your position will affect your condition. I’m not talking right now about commanding you to do anything. It’s a fact of the Bible, the same as Christ having risen from the dead. The fact that you’re dead to sin, etc. etc. will affect your daily life and how you behave. How? That’s tomorrow’s topic.
Lord Jesus, I'm absolutely blown away by what you’ve done for me and what your word says about what’s happened to me. I don’t always see it in my life, though. Please let me see it.
Over the last few years we’ve been hearing more and more about identity theft. You’ve heard the horror stories: The thief gets a hold of personal information about someone, such as their birthdate and Social Security number, and then proceeds to steal their life from them. Basically the thief pretends to be his victim, and uses that deception to do such things as apply for credit cards, apply for loans, steal money out of the victim’s bank account, etc.
But here we’re going to talk about something quite different. It’s the best-kept open secret among Christians. As we’ll see, it’s plainly taught (repeatedly) in the N.T., so every believer should be familiar with it, especially since it impacts us so much. Instead of identity theft, we’re talking about an identity gift.
At the moment of salvation, as we noted yesterday, several things happen: Your sins are forgiven, you’re adopted into God’s family and kingdom, and you’re marked by the Holy Spirit, among others. But I want to spend a day talking about one more benefit, especially since most Christians either don’t know about it or at least don’t think about it so much.
Here it goes. I’m going to try to make this as clear as I possibly can. When you received Christ, you were permanently identified with him in the spiritual realm. Again, on the outside, nothing changed. But behind the scenes, the Father permanently identified you with his perfect Son. Let's clarify what we mean by this, shall we? As far as God is concerned. . .
• When Jesus lived a sinless and perfectly obedient life, you lived a sinless and perfectly obedient life. That’s what I mean when I say that Jesus is my righteousness, as Paul did.
• When Jesus died on the cross, you died on the cross with him.
• When he was buried, you were buried with him.
• When he rose from the dead, you rose with him.
• When he ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father, you did the same.
So what does this mean for us as believers? Well, the most immediate one I see is that of eternal security, the teaching that once a person gains salvation he can never lose it. I’ve talked to quite a few fellow believers in my time who deny this doctrine. But to be brutally honest, none of them seem to actually grasp this concept of identification. They tend to see salvation merely as forgiveness for sins (which it is) or a transaction (my sins for his righteousness, which it is). But if I’m so thoroughly identified with Christ, then how could he and I ever be separated? As far as God is concerned, I’m already with Christ in heaven, seated next to the Father!
But as best as I can see, I’m not seated with Christ in heaven. Heck, if I’m totally “dead to sin” like Paul said in the Romans passage, then you could’ve fooled my wife! All these “As far as God is concerned. . .” statements are wonderful truths, but I’m not seeing it with my own eyes right now. God says these things, but my experience is telling me something different. How to reconcile these two things together is the subject for tomorrow.
Lord Jesus, I want to take just a moment to glory in this truth. You did all this . . . for me. To draw me into yourself. And now your victory is mine.
A moment in time--less than a second—can change your life forever. You’re in a car wreck and lose a loved one. You discover drugs in your child’s belongings. Your boss brings you in and you realize that you’re about to be let go. Or it could be something really good: You realize, for the first time, that you’re in love with the person you’re dating, and want to marry them. You witness the birth of your first child. The importance of something that happens to you, a momentous occasion, might be measured between the seconds on a clock and still turn a corner for you.
Salvation, placing your trust in Christ, is like that. It might only take a moment, but it changes everything for you. On the outside, nothing has changed, but “behind the scenes”—in the spiritual realm, everything has changed. Forever. What exactly happens?
We’re going to discuss some of that today. If this is old hat for you, then I apologize if you’re bored. But quite frankly I feel sorry for you. If this doesn’t still excite you a little bit, then maybe familiarity has bred contempt, and you need a refreshing from the Spirit. Maybe like David, you need to ask God to restore to you the joy of his salvation.
First (and this is in no particular order) you’re adopted into God’s family. You’re born again. I know that this phrase is overused sometimes, but that doesn’t make it any less true. By birth all of us are born as children of Adam, and unfortunately we inherit some not-so-nice things: A sinful nature and all that entails. We’re under God’s wrath, not because of what Adam did but because of what we do. But all that has changed. The Lord brings us into his family, and we get to call him “Father.” Actually the term Paul uses is “Abba.” It’s the easiest and earliest word for an infant to learn, and it’s slightly less formal than “Father.” It might be best translated as “Papa.” We’re now on intimate terms which we never had before. If you read the above passage from Romans 8, you’ll see what else that means--we’re an heir of the Father, and a co-heir with Christ.
Second, you’re justified before God. That’s a legal term, meaning declared “not guilty” in a court of law. All the children of Adam are under God’s wrath, and awaiting the carrying out of the sentence. But when a person trusts in Christ, he’s declared “not guilty.” The righteousness of Christ is applied to his “account” and (for lack of a better word) “makes up” for all we’ve done wrong.
But what about after I get saved? What about when I sin as a Christian? Please read the Hebrews passage again, slowly. Especially vs. 12. My favorite comic strip of all time is The Far Side by Gary Larson. Check this one out:
But there is one way in which Norman (or anyone else) could actually beat God on the scoreboard. If the announcer asked “So tell me, what sin did Keith commit on January 5, 2006?” God would have to respond “I can’t answer that one, Alex.” He promised that he's forgiven our wickedness, and will remember our sins no more. He will never, ever, ever bring them up again.
And now for the last point for today. When you received Christ, you were marked by the Holy Spirit. Imagine a pawn shop, and you want to buy something there, say a TV set. You’re not ready to buy it all at once, so you make a deposit on it. If someone else comes in and makes an offer on the TV, what will the shop owner tell him? “Sorry, that TV's been claimed by someone else.” And one day, you walk into the store, place the rest of the payment down and walk out with your property. Now, please don’t misunderstand. Jesus has already paid down everything for my salvation. He doesn’t “owe” anything more on me. But he hasn’t physically claimed me yet. Until he does, the Holy Spirit is his mark of ownership on me, and if the Enemy tries to make a counter-claim, then the Enemy is wasting his time. I belong to Christ, now and forever. You don’t look any different physically, but in the spiritual realm, “behind the scenes,” you're marked by the Almighty God as his child.
There’s a lot more that we could cover today, but that’s enough for now. I haven’t yet gotten into the most far-reaching aspect of this, something that a lot of Christians don’t know, or at least haven’t taken in. That’s for tomorrow.
Father, I am so blown away by what you’ve done for me. I deserve none of this. In fact, I deserve absolutely the opposite of it. “Thank you” seems so inadequate, doesn’t it? The only thing I can add to it, though, is “I belong to you.”
Christians who are more experienced with the Scriptures might notice something missing yesterday in my little précis on how to get saved, namely repentance. It’s not a popular word, and most nonbelievers have no idea what it even is. The reason I didn’t mention it yesterday is not because I don’t consider it important (or even essential), but because I wanted to devote a day to it so we can make sure we understand what it really is.
When I say that it’s essential, I don’t mean it just in the sense of “really really important”; I mean it in the most literal sense. It’s part of the essence of the Good News--like Hydrogen is part of the essence of water--and any presentation of the Good News that doesn’t include it is incomplete at best and deceptive at worst.
So what’s the definition? It’s a change of heart that displays itself in changed behavior. It literally means "change of mind" or rethinking something, but it goes much further than that. Scripture makes it clear that true repentance will lead from a changed mind to a changed lifestyle.
The reason I bring this up is due to a controversy in Evangelical circles a few years ago. Some very prominent theologians started teaching that repentance is not part of the Good News, and that any mention of it in presenting Christ’s message to nonbelievers smacks of adding works to God’s grace. Since this is a PG-rated site, I’ll call that the nicest term I can use: Nonsense!
By the way, if you want the best biblical presentation on this issue, I can't recommend highly enough the modern Christian classic The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur.
As you can read from the Matthew passage, it was the message of John the Baptist and thus the earliest message found in the N.T. But when Jesus came upon the scene, though, he was all about grace and dropped that less-than-pleasant part, right? Wrong—our Lord just picked up where his cousin had left off. Lots of times, especially in the book of Acts (like this one), repentance is actually used as a sort of shorthand for what one needs to do to be saved, and the term for “belief” or “trust” is not even found in that particular verse.
So how does repentance fit in with faith? I think we need to distinguish them but never separate them. Paul didn’t. When he was summarizing his message, he linked the two: “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” Surrendering your life to him is part of the deal. If you have no intention of submitting to him as your boss, then you have a very incomplete view of who he is, and I'd actually question whether you’ve come to him at all. Repentance and faith—it seems to me—are two sides of the same coin.
Again, I desperately want to be crystal clear here. This is not talking about cleaning up your life before you come to Christ and place your faith in him. No, no, no!!!! But it is talking about officially handing the steering wheel of your life over to him. You acknowledge that he's your Boss from now on, and you commit yourself--by his strength--to do things his way from now on instead of your way.
But what about after we’ve come to faith in Christ? Does repentance have any part to play then? Yep. If you’ll recall, the Gospels and Acts are not the last words of Jesus to his church. There are seven letters in the second and third chapters of Revelation, and the word “repent” is repeatedly directed to both churches and individuals (like here). Repentance is both a once-in-a-lifetime commitment (like a wedding) and a moment-by-moment thing in which: 1) God through the Spirit points out some way in which I’ve disobeyed, and 2) I ask for forgiveness and for the resources to change, and 3) I take the necessary practical steps to change. We all have sin in our lives which he’s working on, and becoming more like Christ is an ongoing process which won’t be finished until we see him face-to-face. The good news (for Christians) is that there will come a day in which I can stop dealing with this mess. I’ll confess my last sin and can stop taking these course corrections for all time. That’ll be sweet, won’t it?
Father, what course correction do we need to make today? Where do I need to change? Or rather how do I need to let you change me?
I went back and forth on whether or not to write today’s devotional. On one hand, it’s likely that most everyone who reads this is already saved. If so, and if I’m telling you what you already know, then I’m sorry. I told you that soteriology encompasses a lot more than merely how to get saved, and that’s true. But no study of this subject would be complete without spending some time on it.
We looked at our problem a couple of days ago, and we went over what Christ did on the cross on Good Friday. But how do we appropriate this?
Leave it to God to make our salvation so easy to grasp and leave it to man to screw it up. He made it so simple that a child of six can understand it. And yet humanity, under the influence of the Enemy of our souls, has clouded the issue.
The title for today comes from the passage in Acts 16. A simple Roman jailer, saved from suicide a moment earlier, framed the most important question ever uttered by human lips, or at least one of them: "What must I do to be saved?" We’re separated from God, condemned by his judgment on our sin. We’re destined to die and then spend eternity in a hopeless darkness. So what can we do about it?
Simply put, you believe in Christ. You abandon all efforts to save yourself through good works of any kind. You formally place your trust in Christ to save you. You can also look at it as receiving a gift, since that’s how Romans 6:23 puts it. Romans 10:9-10 says that you can formalize it by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and that you believe that God raised him from the dead.
You might have heard of a “sinner’s prayer.” There are different versions of it, but most of them go something like this: “Dear Jesus, I know I’m a sinner, that I’ve done wrong things in your sight. I place my trust in you as my Savior and my Lord, and I accept your free gift of salvation. I know that you’re the Lord, and that the Father raised you from the dead. Please save me, Amen.”
Is this Biblical? It would seem so. Jesus told us about a tax collector (considered scum by his fellow citizens) who went to a worship service, asked the Lord to "have mercy on me, a sinner," and went home "justified before God." This sounds like a pretty good description of what we're talking about. But we need to make clear that the exact words aren’t like some magical incantation in which you have to get every word right. Romans 10:13 says that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and I'd submit that this prayer would be a good way to express that.
But I'd also submit that to focus on the prayer itself, like some well-meaning Evangelists do, is to miss the point. It’s good to have an official “turning point” in your life, just so you understand what’s going on. But again, it’s the trust in Christ, not the exact way in which you express that trust, that’s all important. Ruth, the wife of Billy Graham, couldn’t remember a specific time in her life in which she didn’t trust in Christ. She had Jesus as her Savior as far back as she could recall.
Of course, as I’ve said before, mankind is an expert at screwing up what God has done. Our sinful nature tells us that we’re really not that bad. Our self-righteousness tells us that there must be something we can do to add to our salvation. It can’t be just simple trust in a Person. But it is.
If you’ve read this and you realize that you’ve never received Christ as your Savior, then today’s the day. You can’t get saved yesterday, since that’s gone. You can’t get saved tomorrow, since you’re not there, and it may never come. The only day you can receive the gift of salvation is today. Why not do that? Please read this. Today.
And if you are a child of God (which I would assume describes most my readers), then this is a great time to thank him for that. He didn’t have to do it, you know. He could've just left you to your own devices and then finally give you what you deserve. Aren’t you glad he didn’t?
Lord Jesus, you’ve given your life for me, and I reject with scorn any attempt at self-righteousness. What more could I possibly add to what you’ve already done? So. . . what do I do now?
Continuing in our study of soteriology, I’m going to do something you might not expect. Yesterday’s devotional was titled “The Problem,” so you’d think the next logical entry would be titled “The Solution,” right? But no. The reason for this is because we covered this recently. We talked about God’s solution—what Christ did on the cross—on Good Friday, and I really don’t have anything to add to that for right now. Instead, I’d like to tackle another aspect of our salvation and try to clear up some misunderstandings.
A few years ago we saw the rise of the Church Growth Movement, an attempt among church planters to turn starting new churches into a science. They study demographics, they try to change their approach in worship, and they tailor their presentation of the Good News to their audience.
A lot of this is not only a good idea; it’s thoroughly Biblical, or it can be. Paul never changed his message, but he certainly changed the way he presented it: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Of course it can go too far, and some churches—it could be argued—have done so. But there is one term that’s common in these circles that I want to clarify.
The term is “Seeker Sensitive.” This is an approach in which the church goes out of its way not to offend unnecessarily a person who’s seeking for answers and who might be open to the Good News of Christ. As far as musical style, preaching style, and a host of other nonessential details are concerned, it can be adapted to fit the audience.
But is the concept of a seeker biblical? Well, it can be, but it desperately needs some clarification. Take a look at the Romans passage again. Read it slowly. Anything jump out at you? According to this, there's no one who seeks God. That’s one of the universal terms we noted yesterday.
But what about the passage in Acts? Cornelius was known as a God-fearer. These were Gentiles who turned away from pagan religion and who basically saw the God of Israel as the one true God. But they weren’t ready to become full converts yet, possibly because of the circumcision issue. But Cornelius loved God, financially supported God’s work, and offered sacrifices. He also prayed regularly; in fact, that’s probably what he was doing when the angel visited him. So wasn’t he a “seeker”? Wouldn’t what he was doing constitute “seeking God”? I'd certainly think so.
So how do we resolve this seeming contradiction? Here’s my simple solution, and I think it works: On our own, by our own initiative, we'll never seek God. Our sinful nature hates him. We might enjoy some benefits that come from God, but never God himself. You'll never seek something or someone that you don’t desire. And on our own, we have no desire for the real true God. Please forgive me for repeating myself, but C.S. Lewis put it so well: To talk about "man's search for God" is like talking about a mouse's search for a cat.
But he seeks us. He started in the garden, seeking after his wayward children. He didn’t wait for them to come to him; otherwise he would've waited forever. But he seeks after us, chasing us down with a stubborn love which refuses to be daunted by our behavior. He starts to open our hearts and draw us towards himself.
And what’s the sign that he’s seeking us? That we’re seeking him. If we have a desire for him, or even a questioning attitude, that means he’s on our trail. We start to wonder if there’s something to this God of the Bible after all. Maybe those crazy Christians really are on to something. That’s a seeker.
So what does this mean to us as Christians? Two things. First, it’s a reminder for humility. No matter what you thought were the circumstances which brought you to Christ, he was seeking you first. You didn’t “find Jesus” so much as he found you. This reminds me of a cute story I once heard. A man in a church came upon a little boy and was concerned about the boy's salvation. He asked the youth "Young man, have you found Jesus?" The boy's response: "Sir, I didn't know he was lost." That illustrates this glorious truth--Our Lord came into this world to seek and to save that which was lost. He's not the one who was lost. We were.
It also should provide some balance in our approach towards the lost. Yes, I’m all in favor of being all things to all people so that by all means we might save some. You'll find no one more in favor of tailoring the presentation of the message in order to appeal best to one's audience. But I want to soberly remind all of us that God has to take the initiative in opening the hearts of the people we’re trying to reach. If he doesn’t draw someone’s heart towards himself, then nothing we do will change the outcome. That brings us to the question raised in the title. Strictly speaking, the "seeker" in our salvation is the Savior. He’s the seeker, we’re the sought.
Lord Jesus, thank you for saving me despite my best efforts. You have sought me and bought me, and you own me. Because of this, we’re going to do things your way.
We’ve spent the last few days studying how to rightly relate to God, since that’s the secret to finding true satisfaction in life. But how do we get into this relationship with him? It would seem to me that that’s the most important question, so we’re going to spend a week looking at it. Before we start on the Gospels of Mark and Luke, we’re going to gain some clarity by delving into soteriology. What’s that? You might guess that the suffix (“-ology”) means the study of something, but few people outside theological circles know what it is, and it’s a good term to know. It’s the subset of theology that deals with salvation.
I can hear it now: “I know I’m saved, so I’ll see you in a week.” But soteriology deals with a lot more than just how to get saved. That can be explained to a six year old in about fifteen minutes. God desires all people to be saved, so he’s made it pretty simple in that regard. But the topic covers a lot more than just how to accept Jesus, trust me. If you give me a few days to discuss it, I might be able to make it interesting. If you know me, then you know that I’m a practical theologian. If I introduce a fifty-cent word, there’s a reason. We’re going to delve into some fairly deep thinking on this, but hopefully it’ll be worth it.
Before we get to the solution, we need to make to understand what the problem is. That’s one of the big questions in philosophy, by the way: What’s the matter with the world? A doctor can’t prescribe a cure if he doesn’t have an accurate diagnosis. Buddha said that it’s suffering which is caused by desire. Marx said that it’s economic inequality. Some eastern religions would say that there really isn’t a problem, since everything is just an illusion anyway. As someone pointed out, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.
But the Bible’s pretty clear on this: The problem is sin. What do we mean by that? There are plenty of definitions, but here’s mine: It’s the lack of conformity to the expressed will of God. Literally the word is “to miss the mark,” like you're shooting an arrow at a target and miss it. God has a standard that he’s laid out for us, and we miss it. Interestingly, the book of Ecclesiastes (and you thought we were done with it!) has a verse that lays it out of us—“Indeed there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.” This verse lists two type of sin: Sins of omission (“does what is right”) and sins of commission (“never sins”). In other words, we don't do what we're supposed to do, like love God with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves, and we also do what we're not supposed to do, like lie or steal.
Then we come to the universality of sin. Read today’s passage again and count how many universal terms you see, like “no one,” “all,” etc. My count is ten. Keep in mind that the main way that Scripture writers emphasized something was repetition. Paul is trying to hammer home just how serious this is.
This problem (sin) has spread like an invisible cancer, but its results are readily seen. In fact, there's absolutely no aspect of human existence which is not--to some degree or another-- affected by this. You've never seen a government, a business, a church, a family, a marriage, or a person who’s not affected by this. It’s the cause of physical decay in the world and of physical deterioration for us. And its most stark consequence is physical death.
But it doesn’t end there. The reason is that God is a holy God and must punish sin as it deserves. You've undoubtedly hurt other people through your sins, like lying or theft or even physical violence. But the primary Person who’s offended and attacked by your sin is God. As R.C. Sproul put it, every sin is cosmic treason.
And there’s ultimately only one punishment that God has for sin: Hell. Yes, there is a Hell. Jesus--the most compassionate Man who ever walked the planet--talked about it extensively. He spoke more about Hell than about Heaven or any other topic. He warned people about it because he didn’t want anyone to go there.
So that's our problem. I don’t know about you, but I’m really glad that the message of the Bible doesn’t end here.
Father, you could have easily left us on our own. We put ourselves in this mess, didn’t we? But you chose to intervene, and oh, how it cost you! Thank you so much.
What would you like to leave to the next generation? If you knew you only had a little time left and could leave one last piece of advice, what would you say? I’m not sure how I’d answer that, but I do know what Solomon left us. We’re not exactly sure how long he lived: Both Kings and Chronicles only say that he ruled over Israel for 40 years, but that not an indication of how long he lived. He wrote three recorded books which are forever part of Scripture, and his name is forever linked to wisdom. Regrettably, he didn’t leave behind the most valuable heritage, namely a godly example. He left behind lots of money and power to his son, and within one generation the entire kingdom--everything David and Solomon had worked for--was halved and was never fully recovered. All of that wealth? Jesus said that the lilies of the field are clothed better than Solomon in all his splendor.
On the plus side, he left behind one of my favorite books of the Bible (Proverbs), and in a way he did leave behind a valuable example. I’ve pointed out before that a bad example is invaluable: If you can learn from other peoples’ mistakes instead of your own, so much the better.
He starts out this last section by comparing wisdom literature with two word pictures, both of them having to do with shepherding. The first tool—goads—are used to drive sheep back onto the proper path, painfully if necessarily. The other tool—nails—are presumably used to nail fences up. In other words, wisdom sets up barriers to keep us from wandering into dangerous territory. So who’s protecting us? The one Shepherd over us all. His word is the only infallible source of wisdom, and we need to be careful not to add to his instructions. The book of Proverbs warns against this as well.
Let’s examine those two images, since there’s actually a good lesson for us here. Think about it for a moment. A goad is painful. It’s used to get an animal’s attention, and it’s not subtle. A fence which is nailed down is something a little different. It’s also for the sheep’s protection, but it’s a lot less painful. It would seem to me--knowing what I do about my Shepherd--that he’d rather use a fence than a goad on us. But it’s up to me as to what he has to use to keep me on his path.
So what were his final words to us? Ironically, they’re basically a repetition of the first words he spoke to us. He started out Proverbs with the source of wisdom—“the fear of the Lord.” As I said before, this is O. T. shorthand for a right relationship with God. It’s called “fear,” but it’s not being afraid of him. It’s awe mixed with love. We’re to fear the Lord and keep his commandments. This is the whole duty of man, the reason for our existence.
In his many years, Solomon had seen a lot of injustice in this world. He details much of it in this book: Good men suffering, while evil men seeming to get away with their schemes. But eternity gives meaning to this world. If this is all there is or will be, then nothing has any ultimate purpose. The Nazis who ran the death camps are all going to the same oblivion that their victims entered. A million billion years from now, the sun will have burnt itself out and the earth will be a lifeless husk. What difference will it make whether I’ve saved a life or taken it, whether I imitate Mother Theresa or Hitler?
But no. There's a God in heaven, and he sees. He hears. He knows. And he will one day judge everything that everyone has ever done. No matter what men might think they’ve gotten away with, they've gotten away with nothing.
That’s why it’s so important to be rightly related to this God who’s going to judge everything. And that’s going to segue into our next discussion.
Shepherd of my soul, I know that you use the most gentle way possible to get my attention. Please give me a soft heart and listening ears, so you don’t have to use more painful methods. I know, you love me too much to leave me alone. Thank you.
I said before that Western society is the most sex-obsessed culture since the Roman times, and I have a theory about that. I think the problem goes deeper than most people realize. Having studied other cultures and some world history, I can safely say that our society is absolutely unique in the way it caters to the young over the old. All our advertisements, all our popular culture, all of our media, and in fact just about all of our entertainment are all geared towards young people. This is the exact opposite of the way that most of humanity has operated. The terms “new,” “young,” “innovative,” “progress,” and similar terms are positive here and now, but they'd be greeted with suspicion (at best) at any other time and any other place. The elderly were and are respected, and traditions are/were highly valued. This isn’t necessarily a totally bad or good thing; it’s just the way things are.
So now we’re called to listen to the final words of an old man as he speaks to the young. He’s made some pretty bad errors, and he can’t claim to have followed God’s way all the time. He tried his own way for several years, and it brought him nothing but misery in the end. In fact, he hasn’t finished paying for it yet: The effects of his disobedience would be felt immediately in the next generation and for all the years to come. In a judgment from the Lord, right after his passing, his son Rehoboam lost half the kingdom of Israel. And it never was reunited, so the nation never fully recovered from what Solomon did.
So what’s his last bit of advice to us? Remember your Creator while you’re still young. This isn’t to say you need to adopt a dour attitude and abandon fun. It does mean that in all your new experiences, you need to keep your Creator in the center of it all. Make the commitment to have him as your top priority today instead of in the future.
What’s with the rest of the passage? Remember that this is poetry. He’s using imagery to present a picture of a man whose body is slowly breaking down due to getting older. He’s presenting an allegory of aging, probably drawing from his own personal experience:
• The passing of another year (marked by birthdays) holds no joy anymore.
• Everything is growing darker, possibly both literally and metaphorically.
• His limbs are trembling.
• He’s having to stoop.
• His “grinders” are few (he’s losing his teeth).
• His “windows” (eyes) are growing dim.
• The “doors” are becoming more closed (possibly referring to being more close-minded to new ideas).
• The “sound of grinding fades” (his hearing is going).
• He can’t sleep through the night anymore.
• He’s afraid of falling and of other “dangers” he might encounter.
• The “almond tree blossoms” (his hair is turning white).
• He used to be like a “grasshopper” who leaped around, but now he’s stiff with old age.
• “Desire is no longer stirred” (I think you can guess this one)
Remember your Creator before the fragility of life is no longer a hypothetical idea but a present reality. And then the spirit returns to the God who gave it. Then you face him, who will look at everything you’ve ever done. He ends today’s passage with a final cry of frustration bordering on despair: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” This is the cry of a man who didn’t do what he's enjoining us to do. He didn’t remember his Creator when he was young, and now he really regrets it. As life is coming to a close and his body is slowly deteriorating, he’s mourning what might have been.
But the point of this is not to despair. The point of this is to make good use of the time God’s given you. What matters is not yesterday or tomorrow, but today. You can’t do anything about yesterday, and tomorrow is out of your reach. The only time to decide to do things his way is today.
Lord Jesus, however much time I have left, I want to remember you. I want to please you, to honor you, and to make a difference in this world for you. By your grace, I can do it.