When a Christian Thinks They Are Saved, But Jesus Rejects Them

A Pastor once confessed to his church, where I attended, “This scares me more than anything else in Scripture.”

In the famous Sermon On The Mount, Jesus revealed a shocking truth that not all who claim faith in him will be granted eternal life:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them…Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Mt 7:15-23)

According to our Lord, “many” will be absolutely convinced that they are Christians and are assured to enter the kingdom of God, but they are deceived in their faith. Why? How is that possible?

The passage does not specifically identify the reason, but it does give us several details that when compared to other revelations within the Bible, paint a dark picture of Christians who think they are saved, but will actually be cast into Hell. For those who desire to take the word of God serious, this article will point toward that evidence in hopes that it might remove the blindness and help to save some.

The first step is to take a more careful look at the context of that sermon. The following points are numbered for easier reference.

  1. Theme of the Sermon: The overall context of the Sermon on the Mount is a teaching that sets the basis for the New Covenant. It is the Lord’s instruction on what God is looking for in those who say they belong to him. The Jewish audience would have been forced to compare-and-contrast “but I tell you”, with what God had told them through the Law of Moses in how to live rightly.
  2. Divine Authority: It establishes the Sovereign authority of Jesus to interpret prior Scripture, as well as to alter the previous commands of God. and even to establish new commands. This new authority is set in specific contrast to the righteousness of the Pharisees and all other Bible teachers.
  3. New Commands: This sermon addressed major issues of faith and practice, and confronts several major religious beliefs that directly impact expectations of eternal salvation.
  4. Initial Audience: It is spoken at that time to the Jewish crowd, but aimed at those who would believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah–those who would later be identified as his faithful followers, or namely, Christians. To this focus he says, “Blessed are you…because of me”.
  5. Warning against following false ministers who look and sound Christian: The specific context of this “Lord, Lord” issue is to teach believers to be careful to not just follow all ministers. It ought to send a stark warning, as well, to all who teach or hold some ordained position within the Church.
  6. Fruitful evidence will reveal the truth, but only to those who uphold the truth–the rest will be self-deceived into thinking they will be saved.
  7. Claim of Guaranteed Salvation: In the mind of these ministers, and thus in their teachings, they are guaranteed salvation. Their doctrinal beliefs are undermined and rejected by God.
  8. Doing the Will of God: The issue of the type of obedience that God expects is being directly confronted here. These Christian leaders were obeying, at least in part. They had confessed faith in Jesus, and were faithfully doing ministry and missionary work in his name as he had commanded. However shocking it might likely be, confession and obedience are not sufficient for salvation.
  9. Still in Sin, but Not Realizing It: When these Christian ministers respond by pointing to the fruit of their faith and ministry, Jesus doesn’t identify their sin, but simply declares that he doesn’t know them and that they are considered by him as being wicked.
  10. Therefore Christians are Expected to Fully Obey: The entire sermon concludes with this revelation–Jesus expects true Christians to listen more carefully to the details that he commands, and to “put them into practice” completely. Partial obedience might look impressive, but to God it is still disobedience.

Perhaps the two most disturbing revelations to most believers is that they can believe wrong doctrines, and that they can point to fruitful activity commanded by the Lord but that Jesus doesn’t accept. In other words, it is very possible for a Christian to think they are saved, and to have proof that convinces them and others of their eternal condition, but still end up being rejected to Hell.

That truth is not popular today. You will rarely hear it taught in church. The church appears to have surrounded itself with teachers who say what most people want to hear, which is that if they claim faith in Jesus, get baptized, and live with faith and even obedience (even though everyone is imperfect), then they are assured salvation.

“Many will say to me on that day, but Lord my church taught that if I professed faith in you as Lord and Savior, and believed in my heart, that I would be saved. I even have fruit of your Spirit’s power working through me. Your own word says that! Why are you rejecting me?”

Consider carefully, my friends, that our doctrinal teachings and personal claims don’t force God to agree. It is not what we approve that matters, but those whom God approves. Since you and I can’t see that line clearly, we must approach the Throne with faith. That kind of faith is not simply a “profession of faith”, it must be a dependent expression of faith. That means that you must humbly seek his continued grace, because the surety of your salvation is “in him”, not in you.

Secondly, Jesus expects that Christians “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. He does not accept partial obedience. Mostly faithful is disgusting to God. Mostly obedient is still wicked. Unless your righteousness exceeds the evidence of the most obedient followers in your fellowship, you will never enter the kingdom. Claiming that we all sin, or that we are all still a work in progress, or that we are loved and saved no matter what, or that we are predestined and so destined by God for salvation, are all just examples of self-deception. They have elements of truth, but twist them into beliefs and activities that look impressive, but are still built on sand.

It is true that righteousness is credited to us by God on the basis of who Jesus is and not on what we do, but that is not the full revelation. Most churches interpret Paul’s teaching in Romans as an instruction on how be be saved–by faith alone and not by works, thus once saved always saved–but that is not the context (as addressed in previous writings). If it were, then Jesus’ teaching in his sermon would make no sense, because he clearly confronts the Christian belief of assured salvation that doesn’t fully do the will of God and doesn’t produce fruitfulness that can be identified by others.

The “few there be that find it”–that narrow path to eternal salvation–does not include all those who claim Jesus as Lord, nor all those who are active in Christian ministry or church service, nor all those who believe they are guaranteed salvation.

Our Lord is looking for those few who strive to hear and do everything he says in a maturing manner that grounds their choices obediently to God’s hidden will, which must be sought rather than taught. The overall framework and boundaries can be taught, but the detailed application by each person must be sought. The great commission commands that Christians participate in preaching, teaching, and ministering the gospel to a lost world to develop a people faithful to the Lord, but no one can obey that command appropriately without striving to know the specific will of God for their part, at each interaction, with a constant dependence upon the Spirit’s leading.

As Jesus revealed about his own approach, that he did nothing on his own reasoning, but constantly submitted himself to discover what God wanted said, as well as how he wanted it done at each moment. Jesus didn’t just “have faith” in God, he lived by dependent expression of faith in striving to identify the will of God for each encounter.

Jesus’ warning is intended as a wake-up-call to believers to look carefully beyond their claims of faith. It is not intended to scare Christians, at least not those who are willing to strive to fully do what the Lord commands. As far as that pastor who verbalized his concern…he taught predestination and so chose to limit his concern to just words, since he believed that living in sin has no impact on salvation. In the fruit of his action, he ended up within the year of being accused of abuse to others in that church and was fired and asked not to ever come back.

If you, as a faithful Christian, are willing to continue to seek, ask, and knock for that constant input in how to live out the specific will of the Father, striving to obey everything exactly as the gospel was originally recorded in Scripture, then trust that he knows such a person, and will hear and answer favorably as you cry out for his salvation. Be aware that you will not be saved by what you do, but he will only save those he knows, who do his will.

May you express a living faith that depends on his continuing grace. Come Lord Jesus and save your own!

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According To Your Faith

Your faith may not be godly, no matter how sincere you might believe. As Scripture declares:

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Rom 12:3)

Self-reflection, as addressed here in God’s word, ought to be tempered with a clear-headed assessment according to our faith. For many, it is assumed that this faith means that the amount of belief in our personal rightness justifies our confidence that what we are doing, how we think of ourselves, and our assurances all the way to heaven are certain, doubtless, and rock-solid all because we have been taught to believe we are good and godly and guaranteed.

But that is not the same God-given faith being spoken of by Paul in this passage. This commonly taught faith is a deceptive faith given by some preachers through theological doctrines that prop up a person’s confidence with human-based philosophical judgment. It is a taught faith, not a living faith. It is a claim of faith in what a person believes, but absent of that part of faith that must be exercised. It is a gnostic error that promotes right knowledge alone as sufficient for salvation–of being in the right denomination, of knowing the right doctrine, of believing one is certain of being saved. As a result, many have been duped into a false faith of confidence that will terminate in weeping and gnashing of their teeth.

Those preachers and believers who claimed personal faith in Jesus as Lord–who did right by preaching, healing the hurting, and missionary work in Jesus name–will be shocked to hear their rejection from salvation with the words “I never knew you, depart from me you who do wicked”. Their Christian faith was certain and assured in Jesus through their belief, their knowledge of the gospel, and through their obedience, but it was not a godly faith. They did what Jesus wanted, as part of the great commission, but apparently not how, when, to whom, or with any reflection of submission to the leading of Jesus. We are not told that they did anything specifically wrong, rather it appears that the Lord reveals this sad reality to confront believers who have incorrect theology regarding the assurance of salvation. If they had been actively seeking his direction in ministry, then Jesus likely would have known them. They had been deceived in thinking they had faith. How much more so for those Christians who believe they are assured salvation, based on their theology, but can’t even claim all the obedient ministry and supernatural activity of the Spirit, like those Jesus referenced as unworthy?

The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins—being assembled out of believers made pure through their acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, who look and act and believe the same gospel message—but not all will enter eternity. Sadly, many fellow believers will fully expect in faith that the doors of heaven will open for them, but they will hear “I don’t know you”. They had been taught a doctrine of faith, meaning they believe with certainty that they are guaranteed eternal life by accepting Jesus and living for him, which is partly true, but who don’t actually have a godly faith. They were deceived into thinking they had faith, but a confidence-based-faith-in-our-personal-assurance is not the kind of faith that God is looking for. Salvation cannot be earned by our efforts, but without the fruit of godly faith, a virgin will lose everything they thought they had.

Those Christians who have a faith of belief in Jesus, but who “bury their talent”, will have what they had been given by God taken away from them with the divine judgment: “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The kind of faith that is often taught in churches, that of believe in Jesus and you will be saved, but which doesn’t accomplish the will of God, nor produces the kind of life that Jesus claims to accept, will turn into an empty claim of deceptive faith.

There are many, many, many more examples in God’s word, like the few above, that clearly warn believers against being deceived by explanations of faith that don’t rightly reflect the truth of God, but history demonstrates that most professing Christians have been taught to get angry at such reminders, to reject such warnings as not applying to them, to continue in their confident faith in being guaranteed heaven without being concerned by what God actually says to those who claim faith in Jesus. Stubborn and hard-hearted, just like the Israelites.

The writer of Hebrews repeats this following quote three times to Christians who think the promise of salvation they heard is guaranteed to them:

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

Do you have ears to hear? Or, if you will allow me to ask, are you like so many others, who think you have faith and don’t need to consider yourself with sober judgment? It is your choice, for the moment, but that door will not always remain open. So consider carefully your standing before God, according to the activity of faith offered you by God.

To those whom the warnings of Scripture resonate, consider this context of “the measure of faith” that is different for “each one of you”, in this biblical instruction.

Paul is teaching believers to reflect on their individual and personal connection to God and his Church in a way that reflects what God wants to do through them, rather than per some generic, one-size-fits-all type of faith. In other words, this faith he is speaking of here, is not specifically the faith expression of belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Rather it is something more specific to each person.

This doesn’t mean there are different godly faiths, but rather that this context is focusing in on a more precise detail about faith. Within Scripture, the concept of faith contains several elements. Firstly, it is a reference to acceptance of God through Jesus and in what he did for us on the Cross. Secondly, upon that first expression of surrender and acceptance, a believer must participate in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit which perfects our faith. It is within this second stage of developing our God-given faith, that each person is gifted differently in their calling to live out the life of Christ in their own circumstances and relationships.

This is the context of Roman’s chapter 12: considering ourselves in how we connect to God and others, especially fellow believers. This is why the writer expands on this instruction by using the analogy of a human body with many parts (like hands, feet, head, skin, heart, bones, etc). So it is with how the Church is being developed by God: through the work of the Spirit, he has placed each person uniquely in his Church.

He has called each person, not only to believe in Jesus, but to serve in some specific and limited way. He has given different gifts to people, and in so doing, no single person can claim to be better than another. Nor can any believer claim to be more important to the Church, nor more useful to God, nor better than another believer—no matter how talented they are, no matter how much they may think they are more educated, no matter how much their role appears to be popular or impactful.

Don’t think of yourselves as more significant than another believer. Don’t think of yourself as more guaranteed or certain of salvation than is beyond dependence upon faith. Like Jews who thought they were guaranteed the promised salvation as descendants of Abraham, they heard the gospel, but “didn’t combine it with faith”. In other words, your self-view must reflect a leading by and reliance upon faith rather than upon a doctrine of assurance that doesn’t continuously rely on trust.

Again, this faith here is not talking about faith of assurance, or faith in Jesus as Lord. Rather, upon that initial, more general faith of belief, is this more specific emphasis within that faith of a moment-by-moment dependence on what God provides for that personal task or responsibility. It requires a faith that God will provide, guide and complete what is not certain, where the evidence of facts and knowledge are not obvious, and where we can still turn back to our old ways and “fall from your secure position”. This is to fulfill the declaration:

“The righteous will live by faith” (Hab 2:4)

Without faith, it is impossible to honor God, so no human can ever be called righteous, without first having faith, so a careful student will reflect on the detail of this above revelation. The righteous will first have a faith in God through Christ, and upon that foundation they are expected to then “live by faith”.

Again, a believer is considered righteous because of who Jesus is, not because of who they are. This is why Jesus is both Author and Perfecter of faith. The first role as Author is to grant faith to a sinful person in himself as Savior. Upon that basis of surrendering to and identifying with Jesus, a follower is declared righteous before God. Thereafter, God commands that believers live out their faith in a maturing manner that produces the fruit of a living and personal faith.

It is within that second stage of faith, that Paul writes to believers, who have already expressed a faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, to temper their view of self-importance in line with the developing expression of making decisions and acting on a basis of truth-without-sight: a living by faith.

This distinction is very important to recognize, if you want to avoid the common deception of thinking you are saved because of your faith, and doing things that can only be done by the Spirit, when you are still not right with Jesus—when you are living because you have faith (the initial part), but not living by reliance upon faithful directing (the second part).

Remember the explanation of faith in Hebrews that says: a believer must not only believe that God exists (the initial part), but they must also believe that he rewards those who live out their lives in submissive obedience (the second part). The Bible commands both parts.

To live by faith is to approach individual choices and opportunities in a way that depends upon the constant direction of God in order to do your job, to serve, to participate in Church according to his will, rather than according to your preferences, your skills, your education, or according to your ministers expectations, the guilt-trips of others, or the philosophies of success and church-growth.

It would be an error to interpret the phrase “in accordance with the measure of faith” as a statement about a person’s amount of belief. That is very commonly taught, but this section is not focusing on the first part of “having faith”. It is teaching specifically on “how to operate by faith”. The instruction is about approaching our life, our responsibilities, our sense of calling, and service with a constant surrender to what the Holy Spirit wants at each moment. It is about stepping forward according to our personal recognition of the will of God as it fits with our personal grasp of scriptural guidelines. It is about preaching, teaching, serving, healing, praying, showing hospitality, giving, and every activity of service (especially within the Church), with complete restraint and expression that only acts in line with our personal sense of God’s will.

Remember, the immediately preceding context (v.2) expressly states that a believer must resist the patterns of thought common to society and to human reasoning, so that they can test and discover the will of God in the details they are facing. That is the reference to faith being highlighted here. This detail cannot be taught in church, other than in general terms, because it is specific and unique to each individual. It must be discovered in relationship with Jesus through his Spirit, by adjusting our choices and actions to increasingly come in line with what we are sensing of God’s specific will at that moment. This is why Jesus speaks against it with the phrase “I don’t know you”, because it is a relational-developed part of faith, not simply a profession of belief in him.

What is God showing that he wants of us right now, at this time, when facing this challenge or relationship? How do I live and act by his specific direction, rather than by leading with my taught ideas? Am I constantly adjusting my approach to reflect what I am striving to sense of his will, as it fits within what I am regularly comparing to his recorded words in Scripture? That constant adjustment of my life to reflect his leading when I can’t see everything clearly, when there may have been a past approach or even command of God in a similar situation, is what Paul is speaking about in this command.

This is living by faith as an individual—“to every one of you”—You Christians, who have become believers by faith in Jesus, must now live out that claim of faith, by living and acting with decisions and choices that develop out of a leading of faith. It takes the general theology of faith, granted by God, and then strives to apply it, with a new and detailed direction of the Spirit, in our personal and unique circumstances.

The details matter to God: You personally, as an individual, matter to God. He wants to interact daily with you on how to take his general truths and put them into living application in unique ways that are private and special between you and him. That doesn’t mean isolated, however, God wants to use you for a specific role and use in his Church that no one else has been called or gifted in the same way. God can use anyone, even unbelievers and deceived believers to accomplish his work, but only believers who surrender to his regular leading by faith in their personal interactions will be granted that incredible declaration of “well done”.

Remember, Moses had faith, and he also had a history of God’s commands, so when he faced a similar situation, he struck the rock. He didn’t deny his overall, general faith in God. Rather he was judged as unfit for the Promised Land, because he didn’t adjust himself to approach his next encounter with a constant sense of expecting the leading of God. As Scripture records, God gave a slight adjustment to what he wanted of Moses, and even though it seemed very similar to a past circumstance, Moses took the approach of his doctrinal belief, his position as leader, his knowledge of God’s past activity, rather than remaining sensitive to the “measure of faith God has given you” at that moment. He thought of himself and his rightness with God and his service to the body of Christ more highly than he should have. His self-view didn’t stay submissive to his head and he allowed his theology to cloud his decision on how to best deal with the situation he was facing. He didn’t act with the faith given him; he acted with his faith of belief. He was wrong, and he was rejected from the Promised Land.

When a believer is in a position of responsibility—a pastor, a parent, a parishioner—they must make decisions that strive to adjust the details of their choices without having all the information. That is why it is called living by faith. This is not specifically about living by our profession of faith, but a living by choices that come out of an active faith that God has inclined us to do, think, and act in a special and personal way.

Those who preach based primarily on their training will fail! Those who encourage the hurting based on their ideas of what might help that other person will fail! Those who pray blessings on everyone without adjusting themselves and restraining their desires to reflect the biblical revelation that at times God commands against prayer for others, will fail! Those who serve based on their own strength, skill, and history, will fail! Those who give typically out of their calculation of finances, will fail! Those who teach Scripture based on their denominational history, will fail! Those who raise children based on popular philosophy, worldly expectations, and personal preference, will fail! Those who obey scriptural commands based on how others approach circumstances, will fail!

It is not those who depend upon a profession of faith that will be saved, but those who “do the will of my Father in heaven”. What is often considered Orthodox Christian theology rejects this; this truth is not accepted by the majority. You need to hear this clearly. Most believe that living life under their profession of faith is all God wants, but that is the very reason that so many will be shocked to hear “I never knew you”. They claimed faith, and lived an active life that looked obedient, but they did not submit their personal life to act and do the specific will of God. They lived based on general theology, and not based on individual adjustment to the constant leading of the Spirit. Personal works were denounced by their theology, and so their idea of faith had nothing to do with submission to the leading of God in their private choices and actions.

As one conservative pastor taught about those who are baptized believers, but keep sinning without genuine repentance: “Your continued life of sin may send a confusing message to unbelievers, but that’s all. You will still be saved”. Such Christians have been taught a doctrine of assurance in their salvation that deceives them from being concerned about living contrary to biblical faith. They have been blinded by theological knowledge to embrace a claim-of-faith, in defiance of living by faith.

Faith must be lived by individual submission, not just doctrinal profession. Those believers who follow Jesus based on their claim of faith, but without actions that demonstrate a constant living by faith, will fail:

“They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.” (Tit 1:16)

This is the context of the instruction to not think of yourself more highly than you should. It is about a faith-led self-reflection, and a basis for acting in the capacity into which God has called, gifted, and placed you. There is also a larger context to this, within the letter of Romans as a whole, but as far as the detail of this specific admonition, it is fitting to reflect on why believers are cautioned to not allow their faith-of-belief to distract them from recognizing the godly expectation of living-by-choices that come from a faith that God is providing directions to each person constantly.

In this way, several believers may recognize the calling of God to preach, but they will never be gifted the same. As such, each one must strive to adjust their approach to preaching to reflect what God is providing to them, which often will be in direct conflict with personal talent, training, and desire. Degrees, eloquence, popularity, positions-of-influence, and knowledge are often human replacements for being full of the Spirit and preaching under the incidental leading of faith.

To one, this may be pulpit preaching. To another it may require restraint from the pulpit and focus on youth preaching, or street preaching, or internet writing. To another it may be like a pressure boiler, that builds and builds, without relief, until the timing of God is revealed, perhaps many decades after the gift of preaching had been given. To another it may be a message of truth that causes them to mourn for those deceived in the Church and in society, expressed only through prayer, like incense before God, but with little or no identifiable outlet. To another it may find its right outlet through song, but not in direct communication.

To another it may require preaching the biblical gospel, but with a life’s emphasis on part of the message, like focusing on repentance, or judgment, or obedience. Such a right focus will never distort the overall truth, but it will always remain limited in being able to preach everything needed. In this way, no preacher can ever rightly claim to be God’s complete gift to the Church, without acknowledging their need for other preachers to do their God-given-faith part. In fact a preacher may be given the task and calling to preach and teach and promote the truth, but that doesn’t mean they have the authority to define truth ahead of other members in the Body who serve the same Lord in other roles.

God gave Jeremiah a specific message. He hated being viewed as the bad-guy, and often lamented even being born, but that is what the Lord laid upon him and he was expected to preach through faith in that specific calling. So is the case today. Nobody is the entire Body of Christ. Each one is gifted by grace for a subset of the whole, and that truth should be reflected in how each person views themselves and in how each person humbles themselves before the whole. God doesn’t show favoritism. Ministers and Priests are not better than believers without ordination. Each has his place, and each must do God’s will.

God gives a general grace of faith, but he also gives a specific grace of gifts differently to individuals in the body of his Church. Believers who understand this will strive to hear their Lord, to accept the responsibility to apply their personally-gifted grace and “use it in proportion to his faith” (Rom 12:6).

Again, this proportion is not as much about amount or profession–which might lead a person to compare their strength of belief to others, or to claim greater knowledge than another–but more about reliance upon. We are to put the specific gifts of God into personal practice, according to how we sense it would most honor God every day and in every decision, even when others don’t act in the same way.

As the footnote in the NIV also words this, a faith “in accordance with” faith. In other words, this is about expressions by faith, based on our profession of faith. The two are part of a unified whole, but they are not identified in Scripture as the same thing. The first is our claim of belief. The second is our development of the likeness of Christ. In reality, the two cannot be separated, because they both are designed to reflect trust in God.

This detail is so significant, that God pronounces that “whatever is not of faith, is sin”. This again is speaking of specific, individual actions that ought to come from a sense of what we personally think would honor God, rather than a general and common profession of having faith which doesn’t reflect anything unique between the parts in the Body.

That sense is never in defiance of the profession of faith, never in defiance of scriptural commands. This is not about a personal religion, nor about justifying the rightness of each person’s ideas of God. Personal adjustment in doing our individual part within the Body of Christ will always remain within the biblical boundaries of the Christian gospel. The distinction, however, will be in how to apply general biblical principles to our personal circumstances at that moment.

It is about how to focus the truth of God, that in terms of the overall gospel message remains exactly as true to every other believer, into our roles and responsibilities in a manner that shows our desire to adjust our freedoms of expression to select those approaches that would be more mature, more honorable, more reflective of trusting God—to live by faith.

To those who strive to live their faith by faith, God will likely grant greater opportunities to serve him and bless his Body of believers. As it was with Paul, expect that such growth will require even greater gifts of grace that are “sufficient for you”, even though the thorns are more than we want or can deal with on our own abilities. That will require responses of even more active living by faith, which God will give to the measure necessary to do his will.

If you wish to meditate on this distinction further, 2 Cor 4-6 is a powerful discourse on living by faith and not by sight in how to deal with painful, personal circumstances common to Christians. The kind of faith that God desires will reflect both a foundational belief as well as a life-long responsiveness to dealing with individual choices: “With that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak”.

By the grace of God’s Spirit, keep the Faith, and therefore live through faith.

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The Trick to Sustaining Unity

There are few desires greater to any group than getting along. There is not much point in gathering with others who are constantly back-stabbing, ridiculing each other, or experiencing in-fighting. Nations, clubs, churches, and families all need to find ways to sustain unity, or they will fall apart.

The irony about unity is that it is defined as a collection of diverse parts that have an “absence of diversity” (per “dictionary.com” 2/18/19). How can there be such a thing as difference without difference? Somehow, that concept is wrapped up in the mystery of unity.

As the saying goes, no man is an island; meaning, humans are not capable of existing in isolation from each other. We need community. We need each other. We desperately need unity: to develop differing parts into a functioning whole. We need help.

In order for any group to survive, be it a nation with many parts, or a friendship of two people, it needs to do certain things to generate unity.

  1. Common Identity. The group needs an agreed upon reason to exist, a name to rally around, a flag to wave together. The parts need to recognize that identity as something they desire to belong to, and rightfully are connected into. And, it needs to be a vision of being, a “state of being” that can be recognized both inside and from the outside of the group. This is about “who” they are above and beyond their status as individuals. It is typically confirmed by membership lists.
  2. Common Purpose. The group of parts needs a reason to exist and to remain together. This is about “why” they are. Since most people are part of many different groups, it is the purpose that defines why they gather at times to pursue that common desire.
  3. Common Values. This deals with the set of beliefs that each part uses to measure their attraction. These ideals are like intellectual money; they operate as a common tool for social exchange. Such values reflect the motivations and deep desires of people. The more one values the reasons a group gathers, the more committed they will remain when faced with conflict or other options for participation. It is like asking, How much is it worth?
  4. Common Rules. These are essential for removing the damaging effect of conflict as well as ensuring a commonly viewed set of boundaries in which the group of parts can exist. This is both the “where” and the “how”. Without rules, all groups will crumble into chaos, leaving the parts to find sustainable unity elsewhere.
  5. Common Expectation of Benefits. This addresses the question, What’s in it for me? When a person makes a commitment to a group or relationship, they inherently are considering what they will get in turn out of that connection. This is more fluid than how a group fits within the values of a person; it has more to do with moment-by-moment satisfaction.
  6. Common Experiences. This is the organic part of group development, where past experiences may contribute to bringing diverse parts together because of their shared experiences, like those of a common race, or those who have suffered similar pain. As the saying goes, misery loves company. Storms often bring communities together, because the parts recognize they are all in it together, and inherently they recognize that survival depends on unity. Sustaining such experiences or continuing to reference those common backgrounds are essential to sustaining a group over time. Pictures on the wall, regular celebrations of past events, liturgies and traditions all contribute to keeping the flame alive.
  7. Structure of Leadership. People need to know where they fit in a group or relationship. Since we all remain individually diverse from each other, the necessary collective “absence of diversity” can only occur if there is a structure of authority over the individual that is respected and supported. Committees without a defined decision-making process, and relationships that are touted as equals without select leadership, will eventually fall apart for lack of direction. It is a simple fact of nature, that complex bodies cannot exist without some kind of a head.
  8. Unique Clothing. Odd as it might sound, all parts—both inside and out of the group—need to be able to recognize from a distance who is in and who is not. Allowing enemies to sneak too close is always disastrous. Knowing who one ought to trust is equally essential, when the parts all recognize that they are inherently different. Patches, colors, hats, uniforms, secret handshakes, symbols, all contribute to setting participants apart as members.
  9. Sustained Messages. How effectively a group communicates all the above will directly impact the ability of that group to survive over time and accomplish whatever it is after. Whether this is educating and developing the participants, or identifying imposters, or the propaganda campaign of promoting the welfare of the group at the expense of the members, all companies need to market themselves or risk dissolution.

Christians who claim faith in God, and churches who aim to promote unity in Christ, let alone any form of group or relationship that wishes to survive beyond a fleeting moment, must intentionally address each of the above distinctions regarding unity. The effectiveness with which a group communicates and resolves issues in each of these categories will directly translate into a measurement of social health of that group.

However, not all groups are worth sustaining! Sadly, there are many gatherings of people that should not survive, in spite of the individual worth of the members. All people have been created in the image of Almighty God, and as a result all have inherent value, but that does not mean that every group that is formed with those parts reflects God or is honorable.

Sadly, this is true of congregations of Christians as well. As the Lord revealed, some churches are dead.

The above factors are all philosophical observations that contribute to group development and continuation, but they say nothing about the rightness of that group. In other words, groups can develop real unity among members, but not the biblical unity of the Spirit promoted in Scripture.

Godly unity cannot be developed by human invention. The trick to sustaining Godly unity among believers involves the Spirit of God. In this, all the above factors must be altered, touched, and redeemed by the activity of the Holy Spirit, or the unity that is developed will be worldly and temporary, not eternal or righteous before God.

  1. Scripture warns against those who claim to identify as Christians, but deny him by their activity. It cautions against membership with those who promote a “Jesus other than the Jesus” of Scripture. It even commands believers to separate from fellowship with brothers who persist in living sinfully, but still attend church, or even still minister as leaders. Identity can be faked and false claims professed, but they will not enter the kingdom of God. A Christian is only truly a disciple of Jesus if they obey the gospel defined in Scripture. To take on this identity as a Christian will require that the individual put to death their own personal identity from their past, without fear of losing their uniqueness or value as a person.
  2. The purpose of the church is to operate together as the Body of Christ, reflecting his truth and desires, at the intentional submission of personal agendas. The group purpose, as defined in the Bible, must supersede all other pursuits, all other relationships, and each part must do what it has been designed to do as placed by the Spirit, rather than as personally preferred. This purpose is sovereign over all other identities and groups, and is defined universally within Scripture. Sub-groups, like individual churches and denominations, must find their distinct place within that overall purpose by revelation and direction of the Spirit, while resisting the natural temptation to “run ahead of the Spirit”, by doing things by human effort, will, and desire which distort the gospel and blaspheme God before unbelievers.
  3. Christian values find their source in the righteousness of Christ, not in the good intentions or character of people. The shocking reality is that members of Christ are chosen by God from among the weak of the world and from obvious sinners, all of whom bring personal values that have been scared and distorted. What brings unity is the Spirit-caused recognition of personal value demonstrated by Jesus dying on our behalf to pay our penalty before God because he loved us and valued us as his own. That eternal value provides the basis to exchange our damaged set of individual values for his glorious righteousness, thereby not only drawing us closer to him, but also closer in unity to each other. Those who rightly understand the significance of what Jesus did for them, will be drawn to the Christian value of viewing others with the same selfless grace that elevates the needs and interests of others ahead of their own.
  4. Although Christians are not under the Law, as Paul stated, we are under the “Law of Christ”, and so believers remain bound under and governed by rules of behavior and belief. We instructed in what is right and what is not; what to do and what to avoid, what to support and what to highlight as foul. This is why Scripture says that professing believers will be judged according to their works and sustained as they “obey the gospel”. Or, as Jesus also worded it, “he who loves me will obey me”.
  5. Whether because of disillusionment or the fear of pain, suffering likely causes more people to turn away from unity and from staying with the group, than any other experience. When a person believes that God will bless Christians, but then they struggle, many fall away because they didn’t get what they expected. Many think God is a genie that grants wishes, and when things don’t work out, they leave, or more significantly, they are driven away by the Spirit of God. As the Lord retorted, “Do you think I came to bring peace? No, but division”, beginning in our most intimate family relationships. Our expectation of benefits must submit to what God declares, not to what we personally want now. Per Scripture that means, among other things, that we must endure suffering and hardship to enter the kingdom of God, believing that the promised benefits are more than worth waiting for to be received in the life to come. There are many benefits to faith in Jesus right now, but the most glorious and desired ones that accompany eternal life must wait until the resurrection at the last trumpet.
  6. Perhaps the most common experience of every Christian is the recognition of our common sinful condition and the dramatic healing offered through faith in what Jesus accomplished on the Cross. We all need a savior, and believers all have that humble admission in common. We know we need help. We know we have sinned against a holy God. We know we don’t deserve his grace, but that he loved us so anyway. That realization, and the common practices of Christian community, like gathering for church, serving shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing communion and our resources, striving to learn, grow, and obey, and celebrating each other’s baptism, propel us forward in powerful unity.
  7. Unlike any other group, Christians have an unchanging Leader in Jesus. All other groups must consider openly, or subversively, how to conduct the process of succession, when their leader falls. That one fact of reality distorts unity with manipulations, power struggles, politics, and changes to group values, purposes, and benefits. Not so with Christians. We all worship an eternal God, with a permanent Leader, who is both extremely gentle with the repentant and horrifically wrathful to the rebellious. He is a just God, a righteous leader, an infallible decision-maker, and he deeply loves those who belong to him. The real challenge, however, is he chooses broken, fallible, sin-stained, men to represent him as leaders who must give an account of their ministry and service. That should make such leaders tremble. It should also cause group members to interact carefully so as to honor the Lord by submitting and obeying his leaders, while at the same time separating from those who distort the words of God and mislead the members. Walking that line honorably requires complete submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
  8. As common as symbols of crosses and fish and doves may be to Christians, the primary clothing of the faithful are displays of righteousness. It is how a believer demonstrates genuine Christ-like love that causes the world to take notice of our distinct pattern of living. Our displays of membership are not intended to bring attention to the individual, like unique clothing or fancy hair-dos or glittering necklaces, but rather acts of grace that reflect the will of God to a hurting world. Dressing in the armor of God, and clothing ourselves with the righteous robes of Christ-likeness, and thereby shining like stars in the universe as we promote the word of life to others, will show who is in and who is not.
  9. We too have a message. True and lasting unity is sustained as we rightly and carefully live out and teach the biblical gospel. Those who distort the truth, who allow mixtures of the culture into the message, who try to fit in and make Christian doctrine more worldly attractive, who think there are many paths to God and that all religions accomplish the same thing, or who strive to improve the Bible with their updated theologies, develop false unity and cannot sustain good news. The word of God is flawless and cannot disappear. It is timeless, eternal, and life-generating. That is why Scripture declares that genuine Christians have been born again by the word of God that stands forever.

The trick to unity is to follow the Spirit of God in applying the Word of God according to the Will of God, in all the ways that make us One.

To this we were called. To this we are encouraged to “seek to agree with one another” in the unity of the Spirit.

“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then…I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ…then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Phi 1:27-30, 2:1-5)

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The + – + Method

One of the most difficult tasks of any Bible teacher, pastor, or missionary is to speak truth to broken people. We all are a work-in-progress, which makes teaching extremely challenging.

On one hand, faithful leaders are overwhelmed with the desire to express great encouragement to fellow Christians under their care or influence. We want to inspire. We want to love. We want to help, to be gentle, and to extend hope, especially whenever people are struggling.

However, we are also confronted with the painful commission of correcting error and confronting sin.

In practice, many skilled teachers use the pattern of + – +. Back in the day of my own public speaking training, I was taught that a wise instructor will often begin with an encouragement, then offer a difficult insight or correction, and then end with a positive encouragement again. It is like providing happy bookends to a hard message.

This plus/minus/plus method is not exclusive to Christianity by any means, but it can be often found employed in Scripture. In reality, any good teacher will likely be aware of the effectiveness in using this approach, because we all find medicine hard to swallow without a spoon full of sugar to help it along.

Those who are less familiar with this method, especially as used in God’s word, are prone to misinterpretation and distortion of the gospel. Those who miss this detail, can easily assume that the encouragements given, especially at the start of an epistle, are statements of absolute fact, rather than statements of general encouragement. Encouragements are never wrong, but they seldom are given either as universal promises, or as unconditional facts. They are general statements of truth that Paul hopes will fit with that audience. They are more like broad expressions of hope, not specific promises or personal guarantees. When this occurs, the temptation is to form doctrines and theological beliefs beyond the context for which they were given.

Paul was a master at this + – + style of writing. Every letter he wrote uses this approach. This pattern can be found by examining the start and ending of letters, and in some cases by looking at sub-topics in the middle of letters. Following are several examples from the start of letters:

“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…For in him you have been enriched in every way…He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.” (1 Cor 1:2-9)

In his letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul begins with a gushing of encouragement that almost sounds as if that church was the pinnacle of godly living. They had it all—not lacking any spiritual gift and enriched in all knowledge. But anyone who has read the rest of the letter, knows very clearly that they were a messed-up church with many, many distorted practices and incorrect beliefs.

If, by way of interpretation, one views the above introduction to this letter as a statement of universal truth, rather than as statements of encouragement, then it could easily follow that the phrase “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord”, as an unconditional promise that applied to every person who attended that church. For many in the church today, this is a classic passage used to prop up the doctrine of once-saved-always-saved, and it sure sounds appropriate, so long as we don’t read the rest of the letter. However, notice what Paul says shortly hereafter about this church:

“you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived” (1 Cor 6:8-9).

Christians in this church were sinning right and left, in almost every conceivable way, and he warns them that “you” who persist in doing these things will not enter the kingdom. Again, to those who thought they were guaranteed salvation he warns:

“These things [destruction by God for disobedience upon those who were baptized into Christ] happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” (1 Cor 10:11-12)

Those believers in that church who did not retain the gospel as specifically taught by Paul, were at risk of losing their salvation.

“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” (1 Cor 15:2)

In other words, the opening lines of general encouragement, that Jesus was faithful to keep them safe and blameless, would only specifically apply to those who obeyed the gospel, repented of their revealed sins, and maintained the original gospel message, not to everyone who heard the encouraging words at the start.

The encouragements are always true. The issue is in understanding why they are being given. Very often, especially at the start of letters, they are offered as encouragements, because somewhere in the details of the letter, there will come some corrections or instructions that are more difficult to swallow, and are likely to be more easily received after hearing Paul’s personally-felt hope for them.

Another classic in this regard is found in the letter to the Philippians:

“To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi…I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you. I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phi 1:2-6)

It sounds like a guarantee to “all the saints”, that “for all of you” there is evidence that they had become Christian, and so Jesus will always bring that profession of faith to completion in salvation when the Lord returns. In other words, this is very commonly referred to as a biblical promise that a believer can never lose their promised salvation.

However, when one understands the context, it is revealed for what it is: a statement of general encouragement, for which Paul hoped it would apply to every single person, although he knew that would not likely be the result. Notice how he clarifies this statement:

“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart” (Phi 1:7)

The very next sentence tells us why Paul said what he did, because his heart wants it to apply to all of them. It does not say this is guaranteed to apply to every member of that church, because God declares it so, or because their individual names are predestined, or because Paul’s desire for them is the same thing as God’s unconditional promises, or any other reason like it. It is purely a statement of hope, just like any loving parent would offer to their child who is about to step out into difficult territory. We believe in our children and we want to encourage them, but that is not the same thing as a divine guarantee that they will always succeed.

To this church, Paul reminds them to live according to the pattern he gave them, and to take note of those in the church who were also are striving to live that way, because

“as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” (Phi 3:18)

He is not suggesting that such enemies are only in other churches, since they were all guaranteed to have their salvation completed. Rather, he even reveals that at the point of this writing he himself is still striving to win the prize, and that he does not view himself as already having obtained perfection or “attain to” the resurrection. As he revealed elsewhere: “Those who have been given a trust, must prove themselves faithful”—and he confirms here that he was still proving himself faithful. Sadly, there were many in the church at that time who didn’t see the need for living in the difficulty of suffering under the Cross. The likelihood is that they thought they were guaranteed to be saved, so why struggle?

In a third reference, consider Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians:

“To the church of the Thessalonians in God…we ought always to thank god for you, brothers, and rightly so…as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God”. (2 The 1:2-5)

It sounds like a statement of fact, that they were guaranteed as a church to all enter the kingdom. But once again, Paul is stating this as an encouragement, not as an absolute promise. He offers the result of worthiness for salvation per the evidence he gives of their growing love for each other and their endurance in suffering, but most Christians are well familiar with the theology that believers don’t earn their salvation, but that is sure what this sounds like.

Once a reader understands that this is a general statement offered to encourage the group, rather than a specific promise that applies without any other expectations, then it becomes clear that this is not promotion of salvation-by-works, nor salvation in spite of ongoing sin.  Rather, Paul is cheering them on in this statement. He is suggesting that the evidence of their obedience is confirming what Jesus has called them to. In other words, it is not about earning, but rather about transformation and demonstration.

This worthiness is being referenced to those who have already been declared worthy upon the righteousness of Christ, but who are still being transformed. This is why he follows up with a future-tense reference on the same topic:

“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.” (2 The 1:11)

It is in the context of this personal effort that helps to confirm our profession of faith, that Paul commands this church to keep away from fellow Christians who don’t live in line with the gospel: “to take special not of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.” Those who refuse to obey the gospel, show themselves as unworthy, and “will be punished with everlasting destruction”.

A fourth and final (for this writing) example is found in the opening comments to the Christians in Ephesus:

“To the saints in Ephesus…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 to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph 1:2-5)

This passage is widely used, as if it were a statement of theological fact, to promote the doctrine of individual predestination, rather than as a statement of general encouragement. As such, many have erred in taking this section out of context and formed spurious ideas that mislead well-meaning believers from the truth.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of the most encouraging letters in Scripture and rightly so. There is great truth in it, and a lot to inspire a weary traveler. However, as he warns in another letter, we ought to consider very carefully the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.”

The footnote in my Bible suggests that the theme of this letter is about “unity of believers”. However, ever since the Enlightenment period, interpretation has historically inclined itself toward individualism, rather than the preceding ideas of holistic community. In other words, the natural inclination is to think of unity of individuals, rather than unity of community. This is one of the likely reasons for the tendency to read an Enlightenment view into the concept of predestination and end up with views that are not biblical.

Since Paul was not encumbered with Western intellectualism, when he wrote “For he chose us in him”, he did not likely have in mind the individual person as much as the church as a whole. It was not individual names that were predestined here, but the plan of God to reveal himself and his salvation through his body of believers known together as The Church.

The encouragement being offered here is that God has established a plan from before creation to provide salvation through Jesus, and to express it through his gathered body of believers. This is a revelation and reminder that God knows what he is doing and that his plan has been established right from the start. Based on such sovereignty and certainty, the church as a body ought to find great comfort as each congregation and each individual finds their place in it. That is the context to this letter.

Notice Paul’s shift in reference, from the general encouragement regarding what God had designed from the very beginning to do through his overall body of believers, as he then narrows the application:

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13)

The saints in Ephesus were also included in this Church “when you heard”, not when their personal names where written down for guaranteed salvation. As a group, they each had the same experience of being “marked in him” specifically because they believed the gospel when Paul or others had taught them.

As far as their own personal and individual identity, Paul’s view is that they were all initially “by nature objects of wrath”, not predestined saints. In fact, he specifically states that their original condition was one of separation and exclusion, “without hope and without God”. Their inclusion into the church was an act of eventual divine grace, not either a result of their own personal goodness or personal identification. That grace was extended to each person “through faith” in their own time and space when they heard and accepted the gospel, so that they would no longer be foreigners, but at that time become fellow citizens with God’s people.

Even when Paul wrote in this letter regarding individuals in marriage, he declares this same distinction with which he opened the entire epistle: “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” The letter begins by offering overall encouragement to believers on the basis of God’s eternally predestined plan through Christ and his church.

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:11)

May we learn to recognize encouragement for what it is, and may we each strive to humbly live up to such glorious expectations, to the glory of God and the honor of our Lord Jesus.

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Deceived by Second Chances

We’ve often heard it said: “God is a God of second chances”. For those who have stumbled in life, they find great comfort in the idea that God allows a person the opportunity to hit the reset button and start their game over.

Like many lies, they are often built on partial truths—so it is in this case. The belief that God has made a way to grant a person forgiveness from sins, along with a promise of a new beginning, is right and true. In this sense, there is hope for an opportunity to get it right.

That hope is defined by the Cross. What Jesus did by giving up his life on our behalf, to pay for the penalty before God for our sins, created an open door for grace, through faith in his resurrection to eternal life at the right hand of God.

Those who recognize their dire condition as a sinner before a holy God, and accept what Jesus Christ did, become Christians. Such believers in God, who respond to this message of the Gospel as defined in Scripture, are granted complete forgiveness for their sins. They begin a new life, a second chance to live in right relationship with their Creator.

However, that is not how this popular phrase is often used. Biblically speaking, this is not a second chance. Grace is a first and only chance!

This distinction has to do with how God defines his own message of grace. You cannot find within God’s recorded words the phrase (or similar wording): God is a God of second chances, because that is a humanistic idea. It is a man-made concept that has an appearance of religion, but actually defies what God himself declares about grace.

Since the Fall into sin by Adam and Eve, all of humanity enters this world in a condition of sinfulness before God. We don’t start life with any chance at righteousness. We start without hope beyond this fleshly existence. Without Christ, and without his Cross, we are doomed to destruction.

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient…like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” (Eph 2:1-12)

That hopeless condition didn’t have a chance, until Jesus, who was ordained to be crucified from before the world was even created. As it states in verse 4-5, within the above passage,

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

That grace is the first and only chance at true life with God. This truth is not something that many want to hear.

The common preference is to use the idea of God granting second chances to convey the belief that when they sin, God will continually give them another chance. There is no boundary in this phrase, such that a third, forth, or continual chances are promised to be granted. The idea is that there are no limits to forgiveness, or as some have repackaged it: “you can’t sin your way out of the kingdom of God”. But that is not what Scripture teaches.

Remember, the idea of having a chance with God is defined by the Cross, not by popular philosophy. For those who come to Christ and accept his grace as provided through the Cross, this is what God declares about that first chance:

“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted of the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (Heb 6:4-6)

Many false teachers denounce this word of God, because it clearly refutes their popular ideology. If a person actually comes to faith in Jesus, but later falls away from what God expects from their faith, they will never be granted a second opportunity. God is a God of one chance! There is only one Cross, and it can be applied only one time. This is why the Spirit of God declares: “And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” According to the Bible, there is no second chance!

Rather, what God says is to be expected, for those who have started in faith, but then turned their backs on the truth, is:

“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Heb 10:26-27)

In explanation of the above disturbing revelation regarding those who have been enlightened in knowing Christ, but are compared to land upon which God graciously pours out rain:

“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.” (Heb 6:7-8)

The idea above, that God expects a return of fruitfulness from those to whom he grants forgiveness and grace, is often rejected by popular preaching today. However, that is what God says. In fact, he makes it very clear that this grace can not only be rejected after one has initially accepted it, if a person does so, they will never be able to come back to God again. It is over, even if their physical life continues to tick toward their end.

As Paul warned several churches, “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God”. And as Jesus himself revealed, “He who puts his hand to the plow, but then looks back, is no longer fit for the kingdom of God.” They are considered by God the same as those who commit the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, for which they will never be forgiven either in this life or the next. And, as church members are again warned, “See that no one is…godless like Esau…He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.”

Even Peter reveals this distinction regarding the limits of grace, as he applies it to ministers who are not teaching or doing what is right before God. They deceive their followers with promises of freedom from the burden of past failures, but they misrepresent the gospel in their effort to attract members to their church and readers to their books and money into their pockets—or what many would call evidences of ministerial success:

“These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.” (2 Peter 2:17-21)

Notice that Peter identifies these preachers as having actually known Jesus as Lord and Savior. They had been given their one chance, but their teachings emphasized freedom, but not within the limits taught by God. Rather, they distorted the gospel into a license for Christians to live however they want, under the belief that God always gives second chances. They believed in Jesus, but refused to remain submissive to his teachings on grace, and in the end, they (and those who accept their teachings) are guaranteed blackest darkness.

This idea of second chances is often promoted as justification for excusing the pattern of sin in a person’s life. The belief is that God will always forgive them, if they ask for it, but that is not what the Bible reveals. As John warned Christians about how to evaluate true believers in church from false:

“No one who lives in him [Christ] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil…no one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God” (1 Jn 3:7-10)

The Apostle of love, is blunt. Those in the church who demonstrate a pattern of repeated sin belong to the devil, not to God. It is the evidence of their “continuing to sin”, that betrays their deception in thinking they are Christians, but are not. With their words they may want to be considered as Christians who are assured salvation, “but by their actions they deny God”, and are viewed by the Lord as detestable and unfit to enter his kingdom.

There is nothing there about second chances at sinning and getting continual do-overs with God. Christians have one shot through faith in Jesus. The Cross is a one-time application. That is what the Bible declares, even though many churches distort this truth.

God is a God of One Chance, and that chance is Jesus. He is the only door through which any human, at any point in earthly history, can find hope in eternal life beyond their penalty for sin. All hope must find its source and justification in Jesus, in his life and words as represented in the Cross.

The error that many fall into is in measuring their apparent chances according to their own successes and failures. In other words, they assume that each time they are confronted with sin, that is a new chance. They fail at marriage, so they think their second chance is found in a second marriage. They fail at raising kids to know Jesus, so they think their second chance is in leading a church youth group. They assume that each time they fall back into drug use, or pornography, or lying, or cheating, or stealing, is another chance to come back to God. They think that getting baptized, then turning away to their own interests, and then coming back to church is a second chance, but these are not right. Most who use the phrase of “a God of second chances” are speaking about their desire to get right again, but all these are self measurements.

Again, Jesus is that chance, not you or what you do. Our chance with God is not defined by our actions or choices; it is only determined by who Jesus is. He is that one door, that only chance to belong to God, to be saved. This is not to suggest that our choices have no eternal impact, as many falsely teach, but rather that they are not the determining cause of righteous standing before God. Don’t make the mistake of measuring by yourself.

When it comes to understanding this one chance, the truth is found in what it means to accept the Cross. His sacrifice is sufficient to cover for all sin, every failure of natural condition, of every past sin, of any sin we commit after having come to faith, and even over any future sins we have yet to slip upon. God does not place a limit on the number of times we can come back to him in repentance for falling into sin, but he does warn against a pattern of repetition that reveals a distorted desire to maintain our deviant behavior in defiance against “cutting off the hand that offends”. The point here is that God is very merciful and forgiving to those who genuinely hate their sin and desire to remain under the grace of Christ.

Those who come to recognize that Jesus is Lord and Savior are granted their chance at eternity with God. That is their one opportunity. It will never come back around again. Today is their day. That recognition is not the same thing, however, as acceptance. It simply means that God has spiritually opened their eyes to be able to see Jesus for who he is. That awareness will only ever happen once.

Read the parable of the soils, if you are in doubt. As Jesus declared: If you don’t understand this, how will you understand anything I say? This parable is key to understanding how it is that a person can hear the gospel, even come to accept it, but then not reach the end with entrance into the kingdom.

Not everyone who physically hears the gospel is simultaneously granted the ears to hear—that can only come from God, not from the lips of man. Not every kid that grows up in church is confronted with their one chance, even if they have gained knowledge of Jesus and have been blessed as one considered holy before God—for each person must be called by God. However, when God does grant that blessed calling, it is that singular moment of truth.

If they reject Jesus at any point thereafter, they will never be given a second chance. The Bible states that they have treated the sacrifice of Jesus as unholy and are subjecting him to repeated public disgrace and God will not allow that to ever happen again. Whether or not you like to hear this, you are not worth that—no one is worth shaming Jesus again. His suffering on the Cross was one time for all, and never again—not in history, and not in personal application.

Be warned. Do not subject Jesus to disgrace again on your behalf. Submit fully to him and never turn away from that commitment. His one-time sacrifice on that Cross is completely sufficient and powerful to take care of everything you need. The covenant he makes with such a believer is defined from that point on as covered under his eternal blood—blood that was spilled in suffering under the wrath of God, and an eternal life that is now resurrected to intervene and provide everything you need from here on out.

So what about sin after this profession of faith? The message of grace has an answer for that, but don’t be deceived by those who twist the gospel into it’s-all-good messages or sin-doesn’t-matter doctrines. Christians still stumble in sin, but that ought to be increasingly rare in one in whom the Seed of God dwells. Nevertheless, it does happen, so then what? Do we need a second chance? NO. A faithful Christian remains under the blood covering, so they don’t need to hit the start-over button. What they need to do, is cry out for forgiveness upon the basis of the eternal blood of Jesus that they remain under.

A believer comes under the Lordship of Jesus through faith as demonstrated in baptism, and even when they thereafter sin, they remain under his authority and covering of righteousness. Sin strains that relationship, but it does not automatically break it. Please be careful here, do not jump to conclusions on what this means. Sin in a believer strains, but doesn’t of itself separate. It inhibits the blessing of an open relationship, but it doesn’t immediately cause that covenant relationship to break, because our identity as believers is established on the righteousness of Christ.

If left untreated, however, it will eventually destroy that relationship. Believers are only assured to remain free from condemnation, if they remain “in him”. Those who disown him, he also will disown them—that is what God himself declares. It is not the sin itself that is the real problem—it is the refusal to repent and stay under Jesus. Those who persist in their sin, push God further and further away, until eventually he will grant them what they desire—to exist in rejection of Jesus who died for them.

“They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.” (2 Pet 2:1)

Those “among you” who were bought with the blood of Jesus, but who insist on pursuing selfish agendas and twisting the words of God, eventually destroy their one chance at salvation. For those who fall from the grace they had initially been granted, the sacrifice of Jesus can only be spoken of as past tense, because his grace no longer covers their sins:

“But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 1:9-11)

God alone knows whether a person has fallen from his grace. We cannot identify that line, but we are warned that it does exist. What we can somewhat measure, in order to assess where we might need to make some course corrections, is how consistent our lives conform to Jesus and his scriptural instructions. “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And, “You will know them by their fruits.”

You don’t need a second chance. What you need is Jesus. That is who we all desperately need.

If you have put your faith in him, then never turn away. When you find yourself confronted by your own failures and sin, then be quick to repent and strive increasingly to stay away from whatever entices you. In so doing, you will remain under the protective and forgiving blood of Jesus. If you have wandered, then don’t assume you are God and can label your drifting as having “fallen away”. That is his call. Rather, repent with every fiber of your being, and throw yourself upon his mercy. According to his own divine word, those he doesn’t want to forgive, he blinds, so that they will not repent and then he would heal them.

Such is the condition of many who attend church. They have been blinded to their own desperate condition, assuming that they can live as they like with their false god of second chances. They don’t repent. They don’t even realize that they need to repent. They have been promised freedom, but remain deceived. They are the ones who have fallen from grace and can never return.

But for you, I am confident of better things—things that accompany salvation.

God is a God of Grace. He has offered one chance at grace, through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. As soon as you have the chance, grab on tightly and never let go. When you stumble, repent and let him keep you clean before God by his healing wounds.

God is not like some shifty gambler. He only needs one chance. Through faith, so do you.

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Drawing Your Line In The Sand

Everybody has a breaking point. There exists for every one of us a line in the sand—a barrier beyond which there can be no return.

That line represents the uncompromising reality of who we are in our own minds. Those who push us to that line, can never walk with us again. It is over.

To willingly cross that line in our sand, is to deny ourselves–it is to die. And, for most, that is not an option to be considered without a fight to the death. Somewhere, sometime, down that jungle of life, you and I will find ourselves cornered, and forced to fight for what that line stands for.

You don’t have a choice. You will be confronted. Everyone must deal with their line in the sand. God demands it!

It is what I refer to as a Mt Moriah Moment. That mountain was where Abraham was confronted by God to sacrifice Isaac. He was being asked to kill his blessing—his very heart—the son whom God had miraculously given to him—the one he loved.

God brought Abraham to his own line in his desert and gave him a choice: Me or the kid.

Eve’s line in the sand hung from a stem from a special tree in the middle of the most blessed garden, and it represented her hunger for independence. For believers leading up to the Flood of Noah (those called sons of God), their line was represented by string bikini’s of the daughter’s of men, whom they chose to marry in defiance of God. For Job’s wife, her line was putting up with watching her husband suffer with illness, to which she advised him to curse God and die.

It seems that few get to pass through this life without dealing with their line. And those who do die prematurely will still face judgment, so even for them, their line is coming.

Sampson’s line was resisting the complaining of his wife, who cared more about her own life than his, and by telling her the secret of his super-human strength, he crushed himself to death. King Saul’s line was the shame at listening to his subjects’ praise some upstart kid who killed a giant, rather than shouting God-save-the-king, and he ended up becoming tormented with a demon, and had his line cut short before it could even become a royal line.

Solomon’s line was his passion for foreign women. For many of the Israelite kings, their line was in practicing the mysteries of pagan idolatry and fitting in with the nations around them. For the prophet Balaam, his line was directly measured by the size of his purse string, and how much wealth he could gather in exchange for his religious services.

This line is not simply a matter of sin. It is a do-or-die ultimatum to which humans tell God to get lost.

As Jesus walked this earth, many were exposed to their line. Many early disciples of Christ balked at the Lord’s insistence that they eat his flesh and drink his blood—that was too much to expect, and they turned away from God. The rich young ruler came to Jesus, but turned away when he was told to give up his great wealth and then come follow Christ. Many of the religious leaders believed in Jesus, but refused to confess their faith, out of fear of what other important people would think of them.

For a large number of the Pharisees, their line was in the threat to maintaining their jobs and status, as the go-to religious leaders, if Jesus continued to draw large numbers of followers. For others it was the confrontation to their theology that One God could still exist as One with a separate Son of God who was “equal with God”. Others couldn’t stomach the gut-wrenching disappointment that their Messiah hadn’t come as a conquering hero, but as a suffering loser.

The Lord even drew a literal line in the sand and wrote shocking things at an informal trial of a woman caught in adultery—the details of which caused the pious accusers to turn away until none remained. When facing such a line, that is how it always ends–with only one still standing.

This line looks different for each person; it shows up unexpectedly and at times we are often unprepared to face it; and, it always addresses the deepest desires of our heart or the deepest fears of our mind—things that we likely don’t even know are so extremely important to us, until we reflect on our own drastic response to make it all go away.

Many in the early church drew their line at the seventh day Sabbath or physical circumcision. For others it was angel worship, or endless pursuits of genealogies, or comparisons of who could do the most miracles, or who was the most persuasive preacher, or claims that one race is better than another. For some, their line was in being expected to publicly confess their sin in humiliating repentance; for others it was in the friendship-undermining command to confront sin in others. For some it was in allowing for freedom in others, or perhaps in turn denying themselves the freedom to indulge.

The Christian widow who lives for pleasure is said to already be dead. Those professing believers who continue in their exposed sin display the evidence in their pattern and are said to become known as “children of the Devil”. Those ministers who teach many things well, but are not careful to stay within the revelation of God, are identified as beasts whose purpose is simply to be caught and destroyed.

Every one of us has a line—something so engraved within, that nothing and no one is allowed to cross it. In other words, someone must die, when that line is faced.

Peter faced his line of fear of suffering while the rooster crowed. Paul faced his line of defending the Old Covenant Law, while charging forward on his horse toward Damascus to attack Christians. Thomas faced his line with demands of the scientific method to verify that Jesus had truly come back to life.

So where do you draw your line in the sand?

Where will you take your stand against God?

Don’t deceive yourself by thinking you are above this, or beyond such a struggle, or protected from being exposed for who you really are. Every person who professes faith in Christ must come to an end of themselves.

“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”. (Mt 10:37)

Is that you? If God challenges you on this, what will you do? What will it take to prove to God that you are willing to face your Mt Moriah Moment with a dying to what is good and right—like your love for your own family?

“At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Mt 24:10-13)

Jesus prophesied that many Christians would reject their faith in him, without them even realizing it, when false ministers start preaching things that sound good, but actually distort the truth. This popular religion will contribute to an increase in wickedness that will suck the love of Christ out of “most” believers. This line for many Christians is directly related to the theology they swallowed in their favorite church.

“Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” (Mt 10:33)

This is being spoken to those who profess belief in Jesus—Christians. Those who think they belong to Jesus, but ignore the biblical truth that they still remain vulnerable to disowning him…That is their line. And, when it gets confronted, they will disown the one they thought they worshiped. As stated later, “If we disown him, he will also disown us.”

“The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (Jn 12:25)

It doesn’t matter who we think we believe in. If we try to save our life on this earth, when confronted with a circumstance that puts our life-style at risk, our reputation at risk, our comfort zone at risk, our ideas at risk, or even our very physical existence at risk, then we are promised that God will destroy our life a second and final time. As confirmed elsewhere: “Whoever loves this world and the things in it, the love of the Father is not in him.”

Some thing of this world is your line. It might be comfort, it might be freedom, it might be independence, it might be wealth, entertainment, drugs, happiness, experiences, food, attention, influence, successes, pleasures, beliefs, theologies, dreams, identities, abilities, politics, talents, or even plans for your future. Many of these things are right and good of themselves, but when they contribute to us drawing a line in the sand between us and God, they are deceitful and disastrous.

This is part of what is meant by “take up your cross daily, and follow me, or you have no part in me”. Somebody has to die when the lines of our identity and beliefs are confronted. The example of Jesus is demonstrated as accepted when we daily allow ourselves, at the point our ideas and wants are exposed, to be crucified and killed, rather than by trying to nail others to a tree.

What will you do if God confronts your ideas about Christians going into the military, or about women preaching in church, or about getting divorced and remarried, or about illicit sex, or about apparent guarantees for salvation, or about who makes the final decisions in your home, or about your personal habits and side interests?

As the parable of the soils reveals, that line gets exposed at different times for people. For some, it comes right up front, when the truth of God is presented to them. That truth gets snatched right out from under them and they continue on in ignorance to their own impending destruction. For others, there is great joy at coming to know and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, but when difficulties come up in their life, they become disillusioned, thinking that God is supposed to make their life easier, better, and free of pain. They quickly turn away when they don’t get what they expected from God at the time they wanted it. For the third group, they matured in their Christian faith, but some time later on—like happened with Abraham—they come face to face with their Mt Moriah Moment. Unlike the patriarch, however, their anxieties about struggles in this life and their pursuit of wealth choke the life of God out of them. After many years in the church, when they finally stand at their line, they prefer to let God die in them, rather than allow themselves to die. Three out of four groups fail (most of whom believe the gospel), when their line gets challenged.

This is the very issue addressed in red letters by Jesus from the throne of God to the 7 churches in Revelation. Most were commended as doing well in lots of areas, but “this one thing I have against you”. As a congregation, they had come to their line before God. The Lord’s command was repent-or-else. They had a choice to make: surrender and die to themselves on that issue, or face the destructive sword of the Lord as he slaughters those who defend their beliefs against him. Every Christian, on their own as well as in their church associations, will be confronted with their own line in the sand.

Your line is coming. You need to get ready to face it to the death.

Is there anything in your life, your history, your desires, or your fears around which you clench your fist? Learn to expose yourself to God without resorting to fig leaves; to offer every detail of what you possess materially and mentally with an open hand. Give sacrificially of any resource that stands out, especially in areas of obvious blessing, in order to keep personal human nature in submission. Practice restraining, and at times denying yourself, not simply in excesses, but even in those things that naturally contribute to satisfactions that are based in this world. Don’t let yourself become so comfortable that you fall asleep.

In God’s amazing grace, he has revealed that “those who judge themselves, don’t need to fall under judgment”. If we actively engage in disciplining ourselves, in order to stay alert and self-controlled before the Lord, then there is less need for God to confront us with those lines in the sand. It is unlikely that we can dodge all correction, but those who are faithful in the little things, are promised to also be faithful when facing their Mt Moriah Moments.

The faithful in Christ, who endure to the end, like Abraham, will raise their knife over any blessing, if or when it stands between them and God. It is when standing at this line, that God will then announce, to those who consistently carry their cross:

“Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

“I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son. I will surely bless you…because you obeyed me.”

Whether God speaks audibly, or by impression, or simply through a collision of circumstances, will you surrender anything and everything in order to honor your Lord ahead of sustaining the good in your life?

That line can be drawn anywhere, at any time, in any shape, and at any number of occurrences. In whatever way we find ourselves at such a crossroads, we have a choice: cry out for wisdom and help, fully prepared to die to whatever we hold dear, or scream “crucify him”.

Remember, our Lord raises the dead, so fear nothing in the sand!

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Secret Power in Disability

Should we celebrate in our weaknesses? It seems so counter-intuitive, when strength, power, success, beauty, talent, and winning can only be lauded when set in contrast to everything else that doesn’t stand on the top of the pile. But that isn’t what Paul thought about himself before God.

God said to Paul: “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses”. (2 Cor 12:9)

It is only natural to ask, What in the world does he mean? If on one hand, he teaches that believers ought to run the race of life “so as to win”, then how in God’s name can that be attained, if a person is celebrating disability when running? That doesn’t seem to make much sense.

A number of years ago, during a church celebration of youth who were graduating from school, one young man gave his testimony about how he struggled with sin, but was grateful that God’s power is made perfect in him because of his moral weaknesses. To this, the congregation erupted into applause, and again repeated it when they heard that he had signed up to go and learn how to be a professional killer for his godless country. None of the other 20 or so kids received such an honor that day. It made me sick to witness the widespread distorted beliefs.

It has been observed that the Bible has often been used to justify just about any ideas that a person desires, but that doesn’t mean that such claims actually submit to the truth of Scripture as restrained within the biblical context of such quotes. To rightly understand what is meant by celebrating weakness, one needs to more carefully listen to what is actually being said by the Spirit of God.

In larger context of chapter 12 of the second letter to Christians in Corinth, Paul is confronting their challenge to his authority when compared to other leaders who were also doing amazing things and teaching ideas that differed from his. Paul is making a case for why he ought to be trusted, and his teachings followed. Toward this objective, he shares many things about his personal life in Christ, from the shocking amount of suffering while serving in ministry, to his powerful displays of miraculous activity.

At this juncture, he tells them that he had seen a heavenly vision of unparalleled greatness—something that no other leader there had experienced. To counter the human tendency to elevate himself as a result of this glorious blessing, he was given “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” The text tells us that Paul pleaded to be healed of this, but God refused; instead, telling him that God’s power is perfected through human weakness.

The specific weakness here is the suffering in him brought on by this thorn. It was a gift to prevent the sin of conceit which could develop, but was not a sin that he had committed. Some might think that it could also be said that the weakness could be the natural human condition of susceptibility to sin, but that wouldn’t make much sense. Paul is not delighted that he could sin, if left to his own ways. He is delighted that he can more clearly recognize how much he needs God to live honorably in Christ.

The text actually tells us what he means by delighting-in-weakness:

“That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)

When doing ministry, Paul had to push through insults—criticisms that likely recognized some things that Paul was not so good at—that naturally made him feel low, but would allow God to be more clearly honored within him. Words do hurt, even if they are not entirely correct. The constant pounding of hardships, that so easily drains a person of energy and motivation, could easily derail him, if he relied on his own strength, but when infused by the power of God, it actually would serve to increase God’s power within him. Persecutions and pain normally make us shy away and seek more comfortable circumstances, but in a faithful believer, they turn us more regularly toward God, for relief and protection and endurance, for Christ’s sake. Persecutions don’t scare Christians away; rather, they serve to embolden them to stand their ground, because the power of God is made perfect in such weakness. This is the shift that begins to develop in a Christian who faces such difficulties.

This weakness has nothing to do with sin! It has to do with our tendency to naturally seek relief and comfort, which can turn us away from continuing to do the work of Christ. When we are weak, it allows God’s power to do what we can’t. It brings honor to his name, rather than occurring because of our talent, abilities, or strength.

With regard to sin, in context Paul confronts those in that church who “sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.” He is clearly not delighting in their weakness to sin, nor is he suggesting that God gives power to those who admit that they sin but continue in their abusive behavior.

Those who believe and teach others that God’s power is made perfect in them because of their weakness in sin, their failures, their rebellion, their dysfunctional behaviors, their desires that violate the word of God, speak from their father the Devil. God’s power is not made perfect in sin.

So the question should be raised, what then should be our view of weakness toward sin in this context? Christians rightly believe that it takes God’s power to overcome sin, so isn’t that the same thing? It is not the same thing as what Paul was referring to when he said that he “delighted in weaknesses”. In context, he is not speaking about his tendency toward sin; rather, he is speaking about his acknowledgment that God is glorified when we cry out for help in order to be able to continue doing the work he has called us to do. It is in that specific context that we ought to celebrate our disability to do everything ourselves.

As far as weakness toward sin, Paul admits that he is just as susceptible as everyone else toward struggling with temptation toward sin, but sinning is not the type of weakness that he delights in. It could be said, however, that the weakness-to-be-tempted might well fit. Such weakness is not of itself sin, for even Jesus was tempted like we are, yet was without sin; rather it is the humble acknowledgement that we desperately need help in order to not sin.

“Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor 11:29)

Like the rest of us, we all experience that burning feeling to satisfy our natural desires, but such inclination is not sin, unless we indulge it. To recognize that we have certain temptations that have a stronger appeal for us than for others is natural and not wrong to admit. For some, the effects of drugs and alcohol have overwhelming appeal; to others it comes out of the closet in certain types of sexual interests; for others it is anything that makes them feel good or distances their suffering; and for many it is whatever route of life that seems easiest in getting what we want. The recognition of these interests are not sin, so long as we deny them. It becomes wrong when we entertain it and allow it to seduce us.

“but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin”. (Jms 1:14-15)

The weakness to be tempted, when surrendered to God and overcome by allowing his power to operate in us, is worthy to be exposed without shame. However, when that weakness succumbs to the temptation, it dishonors God and has nothing in which to delight. In the Lord’s amazing grace, however, the weakness of having sinned, can be thereafter still turned into strength. This never can occur because of sin, but rather because of repentance and acceptance of God’s grace. Don’t confuse the two.

God is rightly praised when his grace overcomes our sin, forgives it in Jesus’ name, and establishes us morally as white as snow in his sight. But this is not because of our sin, nor as a result of having sinned, but because of his mercy that enables us to admit and repent of such selfish rebellion. In this way, we never delight in our sinfulness, nor in our natural tendency to fall into sin, but rather in our universal need to be healed, forgiven, and made righteous in Christ.

In this detail about how we ought to view our struggle with sin, Paul himself confronts the distorted teachings that had infected the Roman church (and remains common in many churches today):

“’If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?’ Why not say—as we are slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—‘Let us do evil that good may result”?

Some Christians were teaching and believing that God’s glory and power were increased because of sin, to which Paul concludes: “Their condemnation is deserved.” The weakness of sin, is not something we delight in. We ought to be disgusted and ashamed of such sick theology. Rather, when we repent and call out for help, God is glorified in our admission of weakness and our recognition of how much we need him and want to honor him instead of continuing in our sin. In this way, it could be said that we are delighting in our admission of weakness to overcome and resolve sin on our own, not in our commission of weakness in sin.

In this way, those who are humble enough to admit that they are disabled—whether in body, or in mind, or in ability, or in the power to save ourselves—through faith in Christ, are in a perfect position to experience the divine power that raises the dead. Nothing can stop us: no hardship, no uncertainty, and no persecution, for we may be struck down, but not destroyed, if we seek and celebrate his strength rather than our own.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7)

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Truth or Knowledge: A Lesson of Pursuit

To catch a bird as easily as a mouse, a cat must be more than just faster, craftier, or in possession of sharper weapons. In order to be a skilled hunter, he must also be intimately familiar with his prey. Both may be desired for an evening meal, but the pursuit requires a very different approach in order to be successful. In short, birds take to the sky, and mice head to ground.

To mis this split-second difference can leave a cat empty-clawed, if he jumps in the air when he should have lunged for the corner exit. Those who view themselves as intellectually advanced beyond that of a cat, may find their equalizer when confronted with the challenge of pursuing knowledge and truth. To many an educated mind, knowledge is the pinnacle of pursuit, and truth is but a subset of what can be known.

At least as far as Western thought is concerned, the educational system strives for knowledge, and tends to give sideline treatment to the idea of truth. The rarity of capture, when citing truth, indicates that few seem cognizant of the difference of prey—that one goes to ground, while the other takes flight.

The intent here is to raise the awareness regarding differences in pursuit between seeking knowledge and seeking truth. For our species, that of human, we are endowed with an amazing capacity to learn. Although there are repetitive methods of learning that can improve physiological responses, the type of learning that we will consider here will focus on that conscious territory of the mind: what is often called head-knowledge and intellect.

The process required to develop knowledge around a particular subject is relatively the same for most any subject. The starting point may differ from person to person, but intellectually we come to know something by using our senses to measure whatever might be related to that topic. We see, we hear, we poke and prod, until we develop some consistent evidence of what is, from what isn’t. This requires travel all through a subject, to its most distant boundaries, and even beyond, so that we can identify and know that topic, from what doesn’t belong.

Upon this research, we form a mental image, and then put words to it, so that others can nod their agreement or dissent according to how their own developed knowledge matches what we have discovered. In a nutshell, that is how we humans pursue knowledge. For many, that is the end of it, but that is not how the Bible speaks of the difference.

In Scripture, God declares that many seek after knowledge, but refuse to go after truth.

“always learning, but never able to acknowledge the truth.” (2 Tim 3:7)

Truth cannot be pursued in the same way as knowledge. Both require a knowing of the mind, but the two must be approached differently. Perhaps the most obvious distinction is that a person must first come to recognize that truth cannot be found by the tools and tactics common to academia. Truth cannot be discovered through research. It is not accessible through the measurements of any human sense. It is not a product of scientific methodology.

Knowledge always goes to ground. It is earth based and never takes flight. The pursuit of knowledge requires the testing of boundaries to learn the extent of a subject. It researches into the unknown. It measures and identifies what can be tested through human senses and natural logic.

The pursuit of truth, however, requires the restraint of approach within the limits of revealed boundaries. It refuses to stray, as if in the name of discovery, because it isn’t after discovery as much as acknowledgment. The pursuit of truth is about identifying what has already been named, what already exists as it should, what is completely and perfectly right. We don’t give truth a definition, we submit to its revelation.

Rather than an assessment of correct versus incorrect (like true and false), truth represents an unchanging standard of reality. It is certainly something to know, but it cannot be attained without guidance from God, because it directly represents all that he declares is right. Truth doesn’t exist anywhere other than in rightness with God. That is why it is imperative to know the Lord, in order to pursue truth.

Like the fable of the fox who disdained the grapes that he couldn’t reach, so many ridicule what they cannot find. As important as knowledge is to our development, it remains a dead end without truth. Truth is essential to our design. Humans will never function rightly on a diet of knowledge without truth.

“They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (2 Thes 2:10)

Truth is a worthy prey, but it cannot be hunted like vermin on the ground. When compared, knowledge seeks what-can-be-known, whereas the truth emphasizes what-ought-to-be-declared. To seek after truth, one must learn to reach for the sky.

Humanly, it is possible to pursue and attain knowledge, but in order to acknowledge truth, one must know their “pray”.

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Interpreting Within the Limits of Why

Striving to understand the specific purpose for which a Bible author wrote what they did is essential to right interpretation. That might seem obvious, but history demonstrates that it is rarely applied. What is far more common is to take a topic recognized in a specific book or verse of the Bible, and remove it from its’ context and filter it backwards through a preferred theology.

Take the concept of Justification for example. The Apostle Paul wrote about justification within his letter to the Roman Christians, and it has become the defining theology of Protestantism.

Much can be gleaned from what is preserved in that important letter of Scripture regarding how believers ought to understand justification, but it would be a grave mistake to form a theology based exclusively on what is presented there. The reason? Paul did NOT write to the Romans to teach on the subject of justification!

Careful exegesis or interpretation of passages and subjects within Scripture must restrain themselves within the context within which they are presented, or risk dire distortions of the truth. The evidence within the letter to those Rome-dwelling believers reveals a purpose for which he wrote what he did, but when a scholar or minister or zealous believer takes that subject out from those boundaries and tries to reapply them, without recognizing the limitations from the change of context, will inevitably repackage biblical concepts into unbiblical meanings.

It is critical and necessary for believers to apply the truths of Scripture to their own lives and understandings, but that cannot be rightly and wisely done while ignoring the differences of context. Rather, it is imperative that interpretation begin by seeking what God means, by restraining our views within his revealed “Why”, rather than putting history at the center, or putting our culture in front, or by elevating how it might speak to our issues. Opinions, cultures, applications, desires, needs, and knowledge, all contribute demands on our interpretations, but a wise student will seek first to hear what God intends, before injecting their thoughts, and keep their ideas restrained within those revealed boundaries.

To understand how this error has undermined the truth within the Church for the past half a century, one must retrace the steps of theology back to their foundation. Within Protestant theology, that foundation was set by Martin Luther as he struggled against the blatant and distorted practices spewing out of the Catholic church of which he had been a leader. Indulgences and other religious excuses for taking advantage of people had reached a boiling point, and Luther wrote that his own understandings on why these practices were wrong, developed from his own personal study within the book of Romans.

In particular, the pivot point shifted on his interpretation from one specific verse and his view of the meaning of what it contained:

“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Rom 3:28)

Luther seized on the concept of justification and concluded that a believer is declared permanently justified with God through faith and will be assured salvation without any contribution of any human effort. In a phrase, he called this “faith alone”, and in so doing, rendered human choice and free will irrelevant and even non-existent. In fact, he was so convinced that this was the meaning of this text, that when he translated the Latin version of Scripture into his native language of German, history records that he printed this phrase directly into his translation; not as a footnote or other type of suggested interpretation, but directly into the text itself, as if it was God-breathed Scripture.

The glaring problem here, is that Scripture doesn’t say that in that passage.

Luther didn’t just provide a paraphrase; he changed the meaning to fit his developing theology. He made the Bible say what he wanted it to say, so he could point to the authority of God’s words as his own personal justification for defying the authority of the church that had ordained him as a priest. In his zeal to confront errors in his church, he appears to have lost sight of the original context and purpose for which Paul wrote what he did.

Again, Paul was not writing specifically to teach about how to understand the subject of justification. The actual purpose for which he was bringing up the subject of justification, is addressed throughout the letter, but can be clearly recognized in the very next verse:

“Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too”. (Rom 3:29)

Christians living in Rome were struggling with mis-teachings surrounding the widespread lie that God belonged to the Jews. This distorted belief was that anyone who wanted to claim belief in the One True God, must become a Jew. They needed to do what Jews were commanded to do under the Mosaic Law; that claiming to be a Christian was not sufficient; that Jews were better. Paul disagreed—as, of course, did God.

It was for this purpose that Paul used the concept of justification to make a specific point—that contextual meaning was simply to make the case that God declares a person justified, or right-with-him, by faith and not by what they do. It is critically important to understand that Paul was not teaching on justification specifically, but on a limited aspect of justification regarding what actually makes a person joined to God. His intent is to focus just on that detail of the specific cause of right standing, not to present the meaning of justification.

His entire letter focuses on teaching that faith in Jesus, who died on the Cross as a God-planned atonement for resolving the wrath of God against the condemnation for human sin, is what causes that blessed connection, and not keeping the Jewish Law, not measuring oneself to the 10 Commandments, and not by racial or physical connection to the Patriarchs. Faith in Jesus makes that connection.

Once that point–that faith is the reason for identity with God–was stated, Paul continues thereafter to expand on that point. He does NOT continue to expand on the meaning of understanding justification. Notice that immediately after this pivotal passage, Paul expands this point by referring to Abraham and what he “discovered in this matter”. This “matter”, in context, was about what causes a person to be declared blessed in becoming identified as belonging to God, NOT about understanding the extent of what the word justification means.

As a result of this purpose, Paul shows that Abraham was declared blessed because he took God at his promised word. In fact, he hones in on the detail of the timing to show that this blessing was declared upon him as righteousness before he was circumcised. His point is to show the timing and thus the reason for being declared righteous; it was NOT to instruct on the extent of what justification means.

If he had intended to instruct on the fullness of what justification means, he would have (as he did numerous other times on other subjects in other letters) raised the question about what would have happened if Abraham decided not to obey by getting circumcised.

For Luther, whose theology developed into what is now called “hard-determinism”, Abraham simply couldn’t ever fail, even if he disobeyed. Allegedly God forces believers into his kingdom. If Paul had the same belief as Luther—that Abraham was guaranteed to get circumcised, or that it didn’t matter if he refused to obey—then he wouldn’t have written the conditional “if” in chapter 8. But that is not what happened.

Look at the repeated, conditional warning that Paul wrote to the Christian believers in Rome:

“Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:12-13)

Paul believed that believers, like Abraham, have an obligation to follow through in obedience, and that it remains conditionally possible for these Christian brothers to choose to “live according to the flesh” of their natural desires. However, as he made clear in chapter 3 and 4, that condition of obedience is not what makes us justified. Faith is the reason and the point in our relationship with God upon which righteousness is declared on a believer. However, that is not the end of the story. Paul teaches, even here specifically in this letter of Romans, that believers have an obligation to thereafter continue to live out their faith obediently to what he says is “Christ’s law”.

Luther missed this truth, because he changed God’s words to bolster his own theology. That unwise choice has distorted the foundation for Protestant theology ever since.

God does not leave the truth about justification open-ended or vague. Paul may not have been writing specifically in Romans to teach on the full extent of how to rightly understand the meaning of justification, but the Holy Spirit has specifically addressed this subject within the larger context of Scripture. In fact, he returns to this very issue of Abraham and his follow-though in circumcision and how necessary this was before God.

To the difficult question of can a believer, who is declared to be justified by faith, ever lose that blessed standing with God of having been divinely pronounced as righteous, let’s look to God’s own revelation both to his Prophets and through his Apostles:

“If I tell a righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done.” (Eze 33:13)

“You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (Jms 2:20-24)

God’s theology of justification reveals that a believer is declared righteous by faith and not by what they do. His theology also teaches that justification will not be completed into salvation without sanctification, which requires a combination of Spirit transformation along with human obedience. By God’s own word, if such a person has been declared righteous, but he doesn’t follow through in sanctification, then he will not be granted glorification when Christ returns to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Paul wasn’t teaching specifically on understanding justification in Romans, but (to those who rightly-divide-the-word-of-truth) the Holy Spirit HAS taught on how to rightly define justification! Forming a theology of justification primarily from Romans is unwise, because the teaching on that subject was not the reason why it was partially addressed in that letter.

Luther apparently didn’t understand that the Holy Spirit is the primary author of Scripture, or it should have been considered very foolish to call the word of God written by James just some “epistle of straw” at the lowest level of Scripture. But that is how Luther viewed the Bible—that one part was better than another.

Curious isn’t it? Many Christians being addressed in the letter of Romans thought they were better connected to God as Jews. In a similar way, Luther thought his theology developed out of that letter to those Romans was better connected to God than what James wrote. Do you recognize the similarity of error?

As I write this, I am humbled by my own heritage as a Protestant Christian. In many ways, the entire facade of Protestant theology has been erected upon the foundation of Luther’s “faith alone” meaning. Although I strongly disagree with the ultimate package of this teaching, and all those subsequent doctrines built upon this viewpoint, I am not ashamed of having come to Jesus through Protestantism. Rather, I am immensely grateful for those who have gone before me, like Luther, who struggled to take a stand against dishonoring God, especially by fellow Christians. And yet, how easy it is for all of us to strain against the sliver in others, but miss the mote in our own eye.

If you are a Christian of Protestant pedigree, are you sensitive to recognizing truth? Can you acknowledge the truth about justification as presented by God, or will you insist on perpetuating human tradition? Do you care more about promoting the name of Jesus as he defines himself, or will you defend your own history?

If you are willing, commit yourself to take up the revealed Cross of Jesus and promote his truth within the limits of what he has revealed about why he worded what he wrote.

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Faith is not Conviction

When conviction for a desired outcome defines our faith, we have gotten off track. Many believers have stumbled over the belief that God will grant whatever we ask, if we are convinced of getting what we want and don’t allow doubt to creep into our thoughts.

In all fairness, Scripture sure seems to indicate that Christians ought to be convinced in receiving. All it takes is a willingness to declare out loud what we want, and then be convinced it is coming as we desired.

“For everyone who asks receives”. (Mt 7:8)

How straight forward simple. Ask and you will get what you want. That is the promise of the Lord! Those who believe what God says here are understandably convinced. However, the caution here is that this sentence is spoken in a larger context and those who prefer to isolate it, like some magical phrase, and expect to get what they ask for are deluded. There is more to this promise.

“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer”. (Mt 21:22)

Later, the same writer records a caveat—those who ask, must believe. This is not “also believe” (as in belief needs to accompany conviction), nor is it about believing in the outcome (as in faith in getting what you want). Such belief is not what the Lord expects of his followers, even though many think that is what he taught. Here is the larger context to this belief-in-prayer expectation:

“Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. ‘How did this fig tree wither so quickly?’ they asked. Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,‘ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.’” (Mt 21:19-22)

The context shows that Jesus expects that his followers ask in “faith and do not doubt”, but the error that many swallow is in assuming that this faith-without-doubt is about the conviction in getting, but that is not what Jesus meant. That assumption is the natural interpretation for those who are devoid of the Spirit and are not careful in listening for the truth. On the surface, it looks like a recipe for how to get what we want, but that is not correct.

Again, Jesus instructs on what he specifically means by ask-and-you-will-receive, when he spoke about himself as the Vine and believers as the Branches. In this teaching, he reveals that it is in the producing of godly fruit, as a result of “If you obey my commands”, that sets the required context for God to grant “whatever you ask in my name”.

“I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” (Jn 15:16)

In contrast to this necessary evidence, the Lord makes it very clear that those who come to him, but don’t “remain in me and my words remain in you”, can’t produce the kind of life-choices that display the fruitful evidence of Christ-likeness. Such barren trees, who think they are Christian, but don’t show this transformational evidence in their life, will be “thrown away” and burned (if they persist in their sin and refuse to repent). According to these words of Scripture, they should not think that God will answer their prayers, because that promise is extended only to those who “produce much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

The same teaching is repeated by James, regarding asking in faith for what we desire and doing so without doubt:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (Jms 1:5-8)

This faith, at face value, appears to be expressed in not doubting that we will get what we ask for, but that is not what either Jesus or James meant. That kind of faith—a conviction in getting what we want—is not Christian faith!

It is an ache to hear the lament of believers who express their disappointment and disillusionment when their child dies from an illness (as an example), that they had prayed earnestly about and were absolutely convinced that God would heal them. It is a hard burden to empathize with a heart-broken person (as another example), who prayed with conviction for the salvation of their loved one, but they have since rejected the Lord all the way to their death-bed. Why didn’t the Lord fulfill his promise to give them what they asked for in faith and without doubt?

The inverse of this same problem is observed in those who view answered prayer as proof of faith because God gave them what they wanted. This stems from pagan religions where followers become convinced that their god answered their prayer because they got what they desired. The idea of conviction, that God favors someone because they received what they wanted, is not Christian. There are numerous godless reasons for why a person might get what they want:

  1. Time-and-chance, or what many view as luck, or being in the right place at the right time;
  2. Cause-and-effect, like when a basketball player practices hard and then becomes skilled at making baskets for his team, which is a skill/talent issue where one gets a good return when they invest themselves;
  3. Kisses-of-an-enemy, which the Bible describes as favor from the Evil One to entice a person to continue down a dark and sinful path (yes, Satan can grant wishes in this temporary world);
  4. Divine-testing where God grants what a person asks, but not for their good (as Scripture warns “be careful what you ask for, for I may well give it to you”).

God commands believers to “test the spirits” and not to believe everything, even when it appears to be favorable to what we desire. Assessing our belief according to what we get is foolish and very dangerous to genuine faith.

The problem here with what we expect to receive when we pray, and in how we interpret the evidence of what we do receive, is in the focus of the faith. To those who are well-meaning (but still deceived), their type of faith focuses on a conviction for an outcome, but that is not godly faith. The results should be desired and anticipated, but should not be the reason for having faith in prayer. Genuine Christian faith focuses on the Lord, not primarily on the desired results. It focuses on pursuing and upholding the revealed will of God, not on getting what we want, the way we want it, or in being convinced in receiving it right when we ask for it. Conviction may produce wishful thinking, but it is not faith.

“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.” (Jn 14:12)

Biblical faith focuses on Jesus. It concentrates on following him, obeying the details of his words, honoring his name is everything we do and ask. In fact, it never asks for anything other than what the Lord wants. This kind of faith emphasizes trusting him, not in getting what we personally desire. It restrains personal wants to only those pursuits that submit to the will of Jesus, to what pleases him.

“and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.” (1 Jn 3:22)

” When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (Jms 4:3)

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Mt 12:39)

God will only answer prayers that fit with his will, that please Jesus, that submit to the righteous motives of the Lord. Personal motives—like seeing a loved one healed, or a marriage saved, or a job become successful, or pain removed, or the bad guys get what’s coming at the moment we ask for justice—can all come from wrong motives, because they are likely asking according to our human will. Those who pray such requests, can strain with all the conviction they want in things working out, but God will not likely give them what they want, when the expectation is about getting rather than honoring. Asking God to act according to what we pray is not a magical talisman to force outcomes to our ways and wants.

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” (1 Jn 5:14)

Prayers in faith are about requests that fit within the will of God, that depend upon our trusting in who Jesus is and what he has revealed he wants to do. It submits our will to his intentions, and avoids making foolish requests to get what we desire.

Those who have this kind of faith, who believe in the Lord this way, will only ask God to curse a tree, when God shows them that is what he specifically wants to do in that circumstance. They will never astound their audience by casting mountains into the sea, unless God makes it clear that that is exactly what he wants done at that moment. The power of this kind of submissive trust in God and his leading is capable of doing the impossible and nothing they request will be withheld.

This is not to say that believers should only pray for what the Bible says specifically to pray for. Since Scripture doesn’t actually state our personal names, we wouldn’t have much to pray about then. Rather God’s word gives us parameters and guidelines to help us narrow our choices in how to act. Real faith strives to bring our desires under his will, but even when it looks like we are operating still within biblical boundaries, we can be mixing good requests with selfish motives, or in other ways not entirely submitting to his holy will. That truth should produce a fear of the Lord in how we approach prayer.

In this way, a faithful believer will be cautious in what and how they pray, rather than convinced they deserve whatever they ask. Their faith-without-doubt will focus on unwavering trust in his goodness, love, sovereignty, and plan of salvation, rather than in being convinced that trees will wither when we tell them to, or that mountains will jump into the sea at our voice, or anything else that we might be convinced we can get simply by asking for it.

Doubting the goodness of God is foolish. Doubting that Jesus is capable of saving us, in spite of disease, death, or sin, is the kind of doubt that the Bible condemns. However, doubt in our own goodness, is very right and necessary. Doubting that we have it all figured out is perfectly acceptable and appropriate. If we recognize we are in need of wisdom or other traits of Christ, and we strongly desire it, we should ask, not doubting that God might be unlikely to grant our request because of our struggles with imperfection and sin.

None of us are deserving of his grace, but that is not something we are to allow to prevent us from asking for it. We ought to doubt our goodness and worthiness, but not doubt that God desires to grant us his favor and grace because of his mercy and love. We doubt our abilities, but not him or his willingness to give good things to those believers who ask according to his will.

When Scripture declares that “Faith is being certain”, it is speaking of the certainty of “what we hope for” in who Jesus is, what Jesus has done for us on the Cross, and in his promised return to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him; it is NOT in the certainty of getting what we hope to receive in prayer. Biblical certainty and assurance is in God, not in getting things.

In this way, we don’t insist on getting what we want; rather, we insist on trusting in Jesus. We ask without doubting his righteousness and intent on doing good even for those who are not worthy in themselves. Asking in faith, then, is not about conviction in getting what we ask, but rather in trusting that God delights in giving what is good.

With this kind of faith, we are encouraged to share our desires with God. We may restrain some of what we naturally desire so that we don’t make requests that are wrong or contrary to his revealed will. However, so long as we are striving to obey him, to produce fruit that displays the transforming and internal presence of his Spirit in us, to please him with our requests, then we are encouraged to share our heart’s desires.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (Jn 15:16)

Those who think they know what God wants, who have had some private communication from God, some vision of insight, some emotional swelling that strongly inclines them toward seeking something from God, should be wary of the source. The exact same experience can come from Satan, demonic influence, false teachers, deceitful friends, twisted motives, lusts, and wants of this life. God condemns those who claim that God spoke to them, when he didn’t. It doesn’t matter how convinced they are that they heard something. God doesn’t leave his communication open to doubt. He will eventually reveal what is of him, one way or another.

God may expose false faith by not answering according to what a person is certain about receiving. He may reveal those who don’t belong to him, by not allowing their prophetic declaration to come true as stated. He may leave a minister or over-zealous Christian hanging out to dry by themselves, in what they expect to get through their prayers, by not providing an interpreter or a confirming second witness to establish every matter as of God. He may test his own children by delaying the answer or even by not allowing things to turn out as desired at the moment, to see if they will trust in his goodness toward them even when disappointment feels crushing. Answers to prayers may often have more to do with revealing those “chosen by God” from those deceived into thinking they are Christians, but are not. God is more interested in seeing the fruit of Christ developed in a believer, than in our satisfaction at getting whatever we like at this time.

God wants to know what each of us like, what we desire, what is special to us personally. As long as it doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries noted in his word, it is perfectly fine to share it with God. This type of prayer is just fine, but the one asking should be cautious about what they expect to receive.

“You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (Jn 14:14)

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.“ (Jn 15:7)

The promise of receiving what we ask for in prayer, only applies to those believers who make their requests in submission to his name. As the second quote defines it, doing things in his name means that we remain faithful over time to what the Bible means to be a Christian, and that his words continue to fit with how we think and live. The expectation of answered prayer is conditional on “if you remain in me”.

By “in my name”, the Lord is conditioning the prayer. This is not specifically about using the label of “Jesus” or “Lord” in the wording of what we ask. Rather, what we ask for needs to come under the will of Jesus, fit within the boundaries of his own recorded words in Scripture, and strive to entirely represent Jesus as fully and carefully as his own name perfectly represents him. In this way, such prayers fit with Jesus like his name fits him. They represent him without blurring his identity with our own names, wills, wants, preferences, social pressures, agendas, and sin.

Prayers offered in the name of Jesus will always be presented in complete submission to what God wants, what Jesus represents, and in bringing unadulterated honor to the Lord. Whatever we ask for in this way, filters our expressed desires into words that submit to the leading desire of our Lord, and never stray from that priority, nor mix with ulterior motives. When God hears prayers that produce such a naming of Jesus for who he is, those are the type that God will “give you whatever you ask for in my name”.

It seems that many well-meaning Christians have replaced the meaning of faith with conviction, and thereby lost touch with what having faith in Christ is all about.  Our faith should be in him, his promises, his goodness, his plan, his ability to always work things out for our good even when it appears hopeless. It should not be in the conviction of getting what we want or ask for. If our faith is rightly placed in him, and we allow for sharing our personal desires without expecting that God always give us what we want, then we show that our true heart’s desire is for what he desires even above and ahead of our own personal interests.

Those who pray with that kind of focus, know that God will give whatever we ask for in prayer, because what we really want is for him to do whatever He Wills.

“Lord, not my will, but your will be done. And that is really, really what I want!”

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