Prepare for the Shock of Advent

The coming of Jesus confronts the most important beliefs of God’s people. It was true for the Jews, and it will likely be the same for Christians.

Advent is a term used to speak about the coming of Jesus, which we now understand has two occurrences. The first happened about 2000 years ago, when the Creator God came to earth as a human baby, as celebrated during Christmas. The second advent is prophesied to happen sometime yet in the future.

When God shatters human history with his own bodily presence, many things happen, but one of the most dramatic, and frankly disturbing truths, is that he confronts what his people believe about him, and what they believe about their own connection to him.

Those two beliefs form the most important doctrines: What we believe about God and what we believe about ourselves in relation to God.

Jesus’ first advent shocked the Jews at the deepest level of their religious belief. God declared to Moses that there was one God. That was the most important belief held by the Jews. No other belief was as big a deal as the understanding that there was only one God.

Pagan religions often taught that spirit gods could have god/man sons—like Achilles and Hercules—but not in Judaism. None of the Israelites, those known as the People of God, allowed for such a revelation.

When Jesus came in his first advent, he declared himself to be both human and the Son of God. His preaching appeared to have more in common on this issue with pagan religions than with what they thought the Bible taught about the one true God. Jews were confronted at their most important belief, Commandment #1 out of the Ten, and the vast majority, simply could not accept such a disturbing claim. The idea, that this one God must be accepted in more than one person, was simply unacceptable to most believers at that time.

The second most important belief to a Jew was in how they viewed themselves as the people of God. They were Abraham’s descendants and therefore they firmly believed that they were promised and guaranteed salvation. Nothing could shake their confidence that they couldn’t lose.

The first advent of Jesus shocked believers by revealing that God’s promise didn’t actually mean what they thought it meant. The promised seed of Abraham was a reference to Jesus, not specifically to the physical race of people. Thus, only those who accepted Jesus as Lord, Savior, and the incarnate one God, would be accepted as those promised eternal salvation.

The foundation of Jewish faith rested on how they interpreted the Mosaic Law. Their rejection was not because the Law was misleading, but because they were unwilling to accept God’s own revelation regarding what his scriptural words meant. They were self-deceived, thinking they belonged to God, but by insisting on holding onto their own explanations, they have been rejected as God’s people.

Christians had best take warning, because the second Advent will be aimed at them.

Again, there are two beliefs that are most important to Christian theology: how we explain the nature of God, and how we explain our own salvation. Both are likely to be confronted once again when Jesus returns in all his glory to draw his faithful to himself. Scripture declares that at that time, many will say “Lord, Lord”, but Jesus will reject them.

Regarding the nature of God, orthodox Christian theology, and that which most professing Christians hold as the most significant explanation about God, is defined under the label of the Trinity. Like the Jews who rightly accepted that there is only one God, so many Christians accept that God represents himself as one God through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And, like the Jews who were confronted by Jesus, so Christians will likely have to grapple with the eventual revelation that the Bible doesn’t actually define God as a trinity. That doctrine, as helpful as it may be, must be held cautiously, so that believers remain open to accepting the revelation of Jesus, that we currently are told we can only see “like through a glass darkly”, and again, what we can currently “see in part”.

If Christians hold onto their human-explained doctrines and traditional teachings, without remaining sensitive to the shocking advent of Jesus, they may well fall into the same self-deception as the Jews. How God explains himself is far more important than how we may try to define him.

On the second most important belief, that of our view of personal salvation, Christians should take to heart the same warning given to the Jews: “Do not say, but we are Abraham’s children, because God can raise up rocks to provide children for Abraham”. The wording may be different, but the claim of guaranteed salvation is identical. Orthodox Christianity teaches that if a person claims faith in Jesus, then they are guaranteed salvation no matter what—it is what is often labeled as “faith alone” or “once saved always saved”.

Thinking you are saved, does not make God obligated to save you. Remember, the Jews had God’s word too, but they didn’t interpret it correctly. As the Spirit declares to Christians, “do not merely listen to the word, but be doers, so that you will not be self-deceived”. According to Scripture, it is entirely possible for Christians to claim a personal guarantee of salvation, but end up being cast away with the goats.

The foundation of Christian teaching is established on how believers interpret the parables, passages, and ideas recorded in New and Old Testament Scripture.

“When he comes, we shall see him as he is”

When you see him as he is, what will you do with your previous ideas about him and about yourself? The Jews put their traditions, explanations, and expectations ahead of Scripture and ahead of Jesus’ revelation, to their own horrific loss. Are you prepared to be shocked by God?

Like those early disciples who were confronted by Jesus’ requirement to eat his flesh and drink his blood, when the vast majority of followers left in disgust, the faithful responded: “where else could we go. You have the words of truth.” Is that submissiveness of faith-without-full-understanding in your heart?

At the coming Advent of Christ, will you accept his revelation of himself and how he chooses to extend salvation, or will you insist on holding to your own traditional explanations of doctrines taught in your church? Even more importantly, can you hear what the Spirit is teaching now, and prepare yourself to measure every belief, and especially the core foundational doctrines, to what Scripture actually says, rather than to how people have historically tried to explain and limit it?

Expect Jesus to shock, and to test your faith in accepting him, as he reveals truth more clearly in the days ahead.

Come Lord Jesus come…and give your faithful people the ears to hear and the heart to submit to your revelation!

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Complacency Kills

Danger lurks everywhere, but sleep is sweet when a guard is well posted.

Have you ever watched a bird or deer feeding? Animals that know that predators lurk in the shadows, eat with a constant alertness. They may drop their heads to pick at a juicy worm, or munch on some spring grass, but they quickly raise their heads again to scan for danger. Those that survive beyond infancy learned to stay vigilant in everything they do. They never let complacency overtake them.

Watch a horse in the field, and you will likely see that when their head faces one direction, their ears are typically turned backwards. Herd animals often rely on the leading buck or main cow elk to keep watch and sound the alarm at the first snap of a twig or blur of fur. The carefree yearlings, of bison or duck, learn quickly to stay close to mom and not stray too far, in spite of their desire to skip and frolic in the warm summer sun.

It is a statistical fact that most auto accidents occur within 3 miles of a person’s home. The repeated conclusion is that drivers are inclined to let their guard down when in the most familiar territory. Most ladder accidents allegedly occur to the experienced contractors who push the boundaries, rather than observe the safety limits. Most child abuse is said to happen from among those whom a child is inclined to trust. It is a human reality that we are very often at the most risk of injury when we are the most confident. Life bites when you least expect it.

Nature teaches that complacency kills. According to Scripture, the same is true for Christians.

“We are not unaware of Satan’s tactics”, reminds the Apostle Paul.

Because Evil is very real, and stalks those who let their guard down–those who believe the lie that the enemy can never reach them, those who think that their castle is impregnable.

God has provided watchmen on the walls, shepherds for his sheep, and supernatural power to destroy the siege-works erected against his people; however, he also warns his people to stay alert and not wander into complacency of thinking or doing or even believing. Christians are commanded to stay awake and watch!

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:15)

The Spirit declares that what you believe, as well as how you live out those beliefs, will directly contribute to your eternal safety “if” you follow “closely” what the head buck says. Many churches teach that believers don’t need to worry about anything–they are repeatedly taught that they are guaranteed safe passage through this field of green, even if they disregard the sudden trumpet alarms, and even if they indulge without bothering to stay alert for danger.

It is to these professing Christians, who disregard his warnings and teach his flock that their hope of salvation can never be lost or taken away, that God declares that he has “given them over to believe the lie”.

Christians have been grafted into the Great Olive Branch, by his grace, but their standing remains vulnerable to both pruning as well as to being completely cut off and thrown away. The Apostle says to Christians who think they are safe, even if they wander beyond the walls of protection:

“do not be arrogant, but rather be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.” (Rom 11:20-21)

The danger of twisted teachings to Christians is that they are lulled to sleep by ideas of eternal safety that do not submit to biblical truth. Just like the Jews and Pharisees who thought they were guaranteed salvation because they were the descendants of promise through Abraham, so many Christians today claim the same lie of eternal safety.

No matter what anyone tries to sweet-talk into you, hear the word of God to Christians:

“He who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.”

Our promised eternal safety is conditioned on our willing obedience to Jesus’ teaching:

“remain in me, and I will remain in you,”

and again

“if you hold to my teachings, then you are truly my disciples, then then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

and again

“In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God; but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.”

and again

“They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity…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.”

Those Christians who teach and live in complacency are identified as pigs that have been washed and then return to the mud. Faithful believers are commanded: “have nothing further to do with them”, and “those who welcome them, share in their wicked work”.

We have been warned. Stay safe. Stay alert. Don’t be seduced by pastoral idolatry and theological adultery. As we nibble in ancient pastures of Church doctrines and traditions, alert Christians will keep their head about them. They will not allow such history, popularity, or orthodoxy to induce a foggy stupor of false safety. Every thought, every teaching, every practice must constantly be examined in the light. Assumptions of safety in numbers does not help protect the vulnerable along the edges who are easy prey.

Our safety is entirely dependent on following the Lord, not on the pasture, not on our church membership, not on our ability to explain our doctrines, and not on superstitions or beliefs. It protects us as we do what he stays, as we stay self-controlled, as we fix our eyes on him. Satan can never snatch anyone from Jesus, but Scripture repeatedly warns believers that he can deceive sheep into wandering away from the safety that is “in Him”. If a person is no longer in him, then they are no longer under his eternal protection–it is what Peter warns believers as to “fall from your secure position”.

Those who were granted the amazing blessing of participating in the supernatural victory that God provided through Gideon, did not include those afraid of the enemy, nor those who took their wary eyes off their surroundings at the water-hole. Rather, it was only the few who kept their heads up and drank water from their hands. God chooses those who stay alert.

Bride of Christ, pay attention to the words of the Lord:

“You women who are so complacent, rise up and listen to me; you daughters who feel secure, hear what I have to say!…Tremble, you complacent women; shudder, you daughters who feel secure!…Yes, mourn for all the houses of merriment…the fortress will be abandoned…”

Complacency kills. Those who are faithful to obey the gospel message remain under the protective covering of the Lord.

Come, let us graze together in green pastures, alert to those who carefully keep watch over our souls, sensitive to the sudden warnings of the Spirit, and quick to flee from sin.

Don’t sniff the drug of complacency. Stay sensitive to dangers that threaten your Christian soul. Watch and pray!

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The Legendary Artist

Art has power beyond most other subjects or disciplines. In varying degrees, it has existed in every society throughout history. Art is comparable to the tip of the spear—one often stained in blood.

There is coming a day when a magnificent artist will rule the world. Legend has it that this person will govern by the power of their craft, in a way and to an extent never before expressed. They will become the greatest artist this world has ever seen since the dawn of creation.

Art is the discipline of creative expression of an individual. Per an online dictionary, Art is:

“the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Art emphasizes attractive personal ideas that have the power to move others.

Back in the day when I was taking art in school, I quickly learned the trick of the twist. Art is not primarily about skill at expression, nor about the ability to replicate reality, as much as about moving others through the unexpected. Celebrated artists push the limits of the status quo. They inject twists that cause viewers to tilt their heads permanently, as a result of exposure to whatever medium of expression that artist uses to convey their thoughts. Art pushes society to the new, which by design is anything other than what is established.

Art can be both wonderful and dangerous.

It can inspire and it can destroy. It can wake people up to question unhelpful traditions. It can also ridicule healthy patterns, simply because they are commonly accepted. It has the power to construct or to destruct, but by its nature of pushing the boundaries of what already is accepted and expected, it inherently leans toward destruction-through-beauty. Art strives to change what is, by overwhelming with attraction. Art prefers the role of the harlot, and therein lies the serpent.

Tending a garden, or painting a building, or dressing a bride-to-be, combines structure with creativity for the purpose of enhancement. It adds a creative twist that injects a uniqueness, and draws greater attention, but it does so to build. However, art can also sling paint, carve twists, and intoxicate with pleasure for a very different end-game; one that intends to undermine what is deemed acceptable purely for the sake of change. It is not looking to build, but to alter.

Art that twists, while respecting both standards as well as the welfare of the observer, is commendable; but, expressions that twist for the intent of undermining all standards, and thereby harms the well-being of the observer, is called lawless and is condemned by the original Artist called the Creator. There can only be one Grand Master of art, but that is not to say that another won’t attempt to dethrone for the prize of their own majesty.  The Legendary Artist is testing the canvas, and soon will be released to operate in complete defiance of all standards.

“Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day [that day when the Lord will come with majesty to be glorified by his people] will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now hold it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.” (2 The 2:3-12)

The display of counterfeit wonders will expressly defy all acceptable standards. It will be lawless art hung in God’s holy gallery for the design of defiance, deception, and destruction of all those who celebrate its absolute freedom of expression. Those who find delight in artistic defiance, rather than upholding lawful standards of biblical truth, are deluded into thinking they are free, when they are actually headed for death.

Roman history records, like so many other grand empires, what happens when pleasure takes the lead in governing over the standard of common law. As their wealth and intoxicating entertainments expanded uncontested, they lost their will to rule, and ended up crushed by random tribes of barbarians. It was not the magnificent buildings, or ornate marble statues, or volume of creative artistic expressions that caused that grand society to crumble, but rather their disdain toward sustaining standards of honorable behavior, reliable leadership, legal justice, and social structures like the family unit.

Unrestrained art can be breathtakingly beautiful, but it will always eat you alive.

The vast liberal and selfish wave sweeping over our world is neither random, nor without consequence. The social reasons fueling dysfunctional behaviors, aberrant sexual expressions, horrific violence against the defenseless, insatiable appetites for wealth, pleasure, and power, and acceptance of any boundary-defiant activity, can be seen especially in art, because by definition it is the power of self expression through whatever is deemed especially attractive.

What is often identified as “modern art” takes advantage of the natural human desire to seek answers, to understand, or find meaning. When a horrific crime occurs–a canvas of reality that only the perpetrator considers attractive–victims, media, society, everyone struggles to find a reasonable explanation for why this happened. An observer stares intently at such art, in a vain search for structure or purpose, only to be confronted with the raw reality that often there is nothing there, no design, only an expression of creative emptiness, a canvas that points toward nothing. It appears to be the ultimate statement of lawlessness, but there is yet another depth of depravity, that of delusion of belief in nothing as if it were something. Such mind-blowing attractive art can only be produced by supernatural power.

And so the question: What attracts you? Do you celebrate creative expression within godly boundaries, or do you indulge in defiant individuality? Do you fix your gaze upon the creative wonders of the Lord God, or do you find sick pleasure in pushing his boundaries, indulging in sinful pleasures, or philosophically distorting the truth that otherwise could set people free? Do you paint a pretty picture, but use toxic and subversive ingredients?

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts…Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death”. (Rom 1:18-32)

Preferred images of foolish art. There is no man-made art, no matter how amazing or magical, that lasts. It all gets old. It all wrinkles. It all decays. It all returns to the dust from which it was made. There is not a single element on the Periodic Table that can escape this rate of decay. Everything in this universe is subject to a constant half-life.

True, endless beauty remains partially hidden within the canvas, skillfully and mysteriously expressed for the constant exploration and discovery of wonder and joy by the observer, but it always exists within standards, not outside of them. As for me and my household, there is only one Sovereign Creator of lasting beauty.

“One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” (Psa 27:4)

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Identify With A Jew, To Understand Yourself

Antisemitism is just as rampant today as ever. Jews have been vilified throughout their history to a degree unlike any other historic group of people. Although there certainly are reasons, I suggest that they are often misunderstood to our own detriment.

You are about to travel a shocking, scriptural path that few, even among Christians, have likely recognized. In spite of all the swirling hatred between people, it must be clearly acknowledged that Jesus, the one and only savior of mankind, was a Jew!

Relating more carefully to a Jew will directly impact our own ability to see ourselves more clearly. Not only is the Son of God revealed to humanity as a Jew, but the entire Israelite race functions as a reflective mirror of the intersection between humanity and God. Understanding Jews as real people with real struggles, who are passionate about God and strive to live according to a God-given standard, translates to our own level of self-perception before a holy God.

To dis a Jew is to disrespect ourselves. To single them out for special judgment, is to ignore how the sliver in their eye should remind us to look for the mote in our own.

To recognize their flaws and failings, is to highlight our own shortcomings. They are a historic and contemporary mirror. What we see in them ought to forewarn what exists in ourselves. When it all comes down to how we stand before a holy God, we are not so different, in spite of what we think of their history, and in spite of what we see of cultural oddities.

As a Christian, of likely Gentile roots, I am not suggesting that Jews are good of themselves, any more than I am suggesting that Christians who profess faith in Jesus are good of themselves. Both groups of people have a biblical history of engagement with God. Both are mirrors to the rest of humanity of why we exist on this spinning orb, of why we are all similar in some respects and starkly different in other ways, and ultimately both groups demonstrate a very unique and special revelation of God’s expectations and interest in people.

Recently, I listened to a pastor that spoke about the wicked Pharisees. The picture painted was not pretty, and frankly factual and justified in some respects, but we would do well to not distance them too far from ourselves. To use their own words prayed regarding their view toward outsiders, “God, I am glad I am not like that sinner”, would be an unwise approach to repeat back toward them.

Ancient Israel became the people of God through fulfillment of a promise and not because of a law. The Law came later; Grace came first. That is not all that different for a Christian. However, in their freedom of identity as God’s chosen people, they drifted into idolatry and pursuing their own ideas on how to live in and interact with this world. The result was God’s judgment of sending them into captivity and to the sword.

Christians have been called by Grace to New Covenant faith in Christ, set free from living according to that Old Covenant Law, and are also warned to not use our freedoms to indulge ourselves, but rather to serve the Lord alone and to put to death our own natural-focused desires. To dismiss the Jews as failures in this life, which in many ways history does confirm, is to ignore our own peril in how God expects us to live.

“’Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again…I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited”. (Rom 11:19-25)

Notice how the Spirit speaks about how Christians are to view the Jews, as well as themselves: “Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.” They are not all that different from us, nor from revealing what God expects of those who are graciously called his people.

At the time that Jesus walked this earth, the Jewish people as a whole, and especially the Pharisees, rejected the Lord. Paul, a Christian and an amazing Apostle of Christ, belonged to the Jews and was a zealous Pharisee. In his own words, he admitted that he and they were wrong, but still deserving of respect, both for who they still are to God, as well as for the evidence of their honorable passion toward God.

“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Rom 10:1-2)

Do you have that view of Jews? Does your heart go out toward them for their good? Do you recognize that as a people, a huge part of what makes them stand out so much in this world is their passionate efforts to try and follow God? That was Paul’s view, and by example ought to be ours.

As God reveals, “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile”. The concept is that one of the ways humanity ought to recognize the expectations and revelation of God for themselves is by first looking at the Jews. What God has done, is doing, and will do regarding Jews, is directly linked to the rest of humanity. Jewish history is recorded as a significant part of the biblical record: “for us upon whom the ends of the age has come, so that we will not set our hearts on what they desired.”

Of course, not all Jews want to obey God, nor do all have pure hearts cleansed from private agendas or selfish interests. The Jewish people then and now, and those Pharisee’s in Jesus day, are (and were) real people who struggle with all the same issues evident in every race of people.

One might ask, how can they be credited as truly zealous for God, if they wanted to kill Jesus, and eventually succeeded in leading the Creator of Life to be crucified? Listen carefully to this answer. Without excusing the jealousy and wicked motives also present at that time, their desire to specifically kill Jesus came directly from God’s own Law—God commanded them to kill prophets like Jesus! They were trying desperately to obey God (as will be quoted from God’s own mouth shortly), so be careful about the degree to which you are inclined to vilify them for the crucifixion.

They were not simply fulfilling prophecy; they were striving to obey God by trying to kill Jesus. When Paul contributed to the stoning of Steven, and then went about trying to destroy the early Church, he did so because he understood God’s own Law that commanded such an approach. He, and they, were wrong, but not because they were entirely disobedient.

Think about the life and ministry of Jesus from a faithful, religious, Law-abiding Jewish perspective. Jesus was heard teaching things like: “you heard it said in the past [by God]…but I tell you” to do something completely different and in many cases the very opposite of what the Law of God commands. The Law required that a woman accused of adultery while within the city to be killed, but Jesus wouldn’t do what the Law commanded.

The Law expressly stated that no Jew was to go out into the fields to gather food on the Sabbath. In fact, that was the exact context of the very first time the Sabbath was commanded by God at the time he rained Manna down as food. Yet, that is exactly what Jesus was teaching and leading his followers to do—to go out into fields and gather food off the ground to eat, in direct violation of God’s Sabbath command.

Jesus answer to this was in two parts. The first was that he was Lord over the Sabbath, which meant that, unlike all other worldly kings, he was not under law, but over it, in such a way that he could change it whenever he wanted. According to the OC Law, his disciples were violating God’s commands, but as Lord over those Laws, Jesus was demonstrating his Sovereign right to allow them to eat in violation of that Law, but without sin. The same truth is displayed when Jesus tells the healed paralytic to take up his mat and go to the Temple (through the city gates from where he was when he got healed)…in direct violation of God’s command that no one carry their mat through the city gates.

Secondly, Jesus asked a question about what is lawful under the Sabbath “to do good or to do evil”. This was an invalid question for a Jew. They did not ever have the right to disobey God’s Law whenever they thought they were doing something that would be better or good. Remember when Uzzah was leading the return of the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel, to the celebration of the people of Israel and the passionate dancing of King David? He thought he was doing right when the oxen stumbled and the Ark was at risk of falling over—he put out his hand to stabilize the holy box, and in anger, God struck him dead on the spot in front of everyone. They did not have the right to “do what is good” according to their own minds on the Sabbath, or in any other circumstance, if it violated the directly stated command of God. Jesus confronted them with this question to emphasize his divine shift toward New Covenant living before God, rather than under OC obedience, but that was not something they understood was allowable under that previous system given by God.

Over and over again, Jesus did things that taught the people to act in ways that violated that former Law of Moses, but without sinning. He even called himself the Son of God, “making yourself equal with God”, when they all knew that there was only one God. This was an idea about God that they did not know, that was not taught by Moses, and looked suspiciously like he was promoting a false god, even allowing people to worship him. How could they view him as doing anything other than leading people away from God, with strange and new teachings, and into idolatry?

The fact that he was performing amazing miracles was not sufficient for them to dismiss their concerns. It is easy to ridicule them for not celebrating when Jesus healed someone, but they were under the direct command by God to focus on the words given through Moses, and not be distracted by amazing activity. In fact, that was something that God warned them would happen—that prophets would come and even perform amazing things, but if they taught the people to stray from how the Law pointed them toward God, they were to be killed.

Did you hear that? God commanded the Jews to kill people, and especially prophets who performed miracles, but led the people in ways that conflicted with God’s commands under that Old Covenant.

“If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God…you must purge the evil from among you.” (Dt 13:1-5)

With regard to followers of Jesus, those Christians who were teaching people to worship a human named Jesus, the Jews were under strict orders to stone such people:

“If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closets friend secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods”…do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the Lord your God…You must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. Destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock.” (Dt 13:6-18)

Jews who obeyed by killing such people, were then promised to be blessed by God, that he would increase their numbers and show them mercy, because they did “what is right in his eyes” (v.18).

Is this how you view Jews? That their passion to kill Jesus and get rid of Christians, who all live and teach contrary to that former Law of God, could well be thought of in their mind as right in God’s view? In truth, they certainly were not right in killing the Messiah, nor in abusing Christians, but without understanding the cosmic shift revealed through the NC gospel in Jesus, they were trying desperately to obey what God commanded. Jesus’ ministry looked very much like a biblical test from God, to see how much the Jews, led especially by the passionate obedience of the Pharisees, truly loved God.

Are you passionate toward striving to obey Jesus like Jews who still try to obey pre-Jesus Scripture? You might think so, but repeatedly Scripture warns Christians that they are equally susceptible to thinking they are right with God, when they are not. Christians can be deceived into religious arrogance, just like Jews. We are not so different. It is a human problem, not specifically a Jew flaw.

Many Christians throughout history, including influential names like Justin Martyr, Chrysostom, and Martin Luther, have vehemently attacked Jews as somehow worthy of greater rejection and abuse than other people, but that is not godly or biblical. The Jews are not primarily responsible for Jesus dying on the Cross–every human being holds that hammer in their own hand! Jesus was crucified from the foundation of the world for the sins of humanity, not because of rejection by one small tribe of people in history.

Jews certainly were the instruments, along with the Romans, who put him to death and shouted, “may his blood be upon us and upon our children”, but don’t forget that Jesus shed his blood because of your sin and mine. That blood is on our own heads, too, because all have sinned. As Jesus declared, the greater sin belongs upon those who turned him over to die on the Cross–ultimately that means Jew, Gentile, Christian, everyone. We are all naturally evil and unworthy, no more and no less than a Jew! Racism is ignorant because it claims superiority over others who all came from the same family tree and who all have committed the same thing against the Lord.

The Jews thought they were guaranteed to remain the people of God, no matter what, because they were the obvious descendants of Abraham, but John the Baptist and Jesus both warned them against thinking like that. Believers today tend to make the exact same mistake. Christians think they are guaranteed salvation, no matter what, because they profess faith in Jesus, but the writers of New Testament Scripture warn believers not to think like that.

Admittedly, Jesus is confusing at times. Many of his disciples left him because his teachings were hard to accept (like eating his flesh), and often his faithful didn’t understand him any better. However, true Christians have learned the approach expressed by Peter and by Martha: “where else can we go, you have the words of truth. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”.

“Blessed are those who do not fall away on account of me”. (Jesus)

Do you see yourself in a Jew? You should.

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Jesus Looks At The Way We Obey

It seems unthinkable that the Lord would reject Christians who claim faith in him and who do what he says to do, like sharing the great commission. Why would he do that?

It is so unthinkable, that most churches teach that this cannot happen. They reject the repeated evidence in Scripture, to promote what people prefer to hear, that once a person makes a genuine profession of faith in Jesus, they are guaranteed salvation, and nothing they do can ever separate them from Christ.

As highlighted in the last two posts, the Bible teaches that not all who say Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom. Not all who claim to have a profession of faith are thereafter acting with faith as the manner in which they approach decisions. Many people will think they are saved, but Jesus will reject them as wicked. What is missing in their Christian faith?

According to the Spirit, it is entirely possible, even common, for Christians to rightly claim faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, to even grow in their knowledge and practice by obeying what he says, and still miss out. Christianity is not just simply about knowing rightly, nor about doing right; it is designed to be about reflecting rightly, and that requires that our motives for why we do what we do to come in line with the heart of God. In other words, Christianity requires that we obey in the way that fits with and reflects the nature of God.

Christian history has shifted the biblical focus of the nature of God toward an intellectual description of how there can be one God in three persons. The Trinity may be a helpful concept in trying to understand the Godhead, but Scripture emphasizes the nature of God in terms of righteousness. As the Apostle John noted succinctly, “God is Love!”

If you want to understand the way to live faithfully, with genuine hope as a salvation-promised Christian, you must focus not simply on what you do, but on the way you obey. In a word, you must seek the way of love.

In the context of Paul’s instructions to the Christians in Corinth, he identifies that there are numerous parts or roles in the Church into which the Spirit of God places and gifts people differently, like apostles, prophets, and teachers. He then proceeds to say, “but now, let me show you the most excellent way” to apply yourselves in these different responsibilities. 1 Cor 13 is known as the love chapter, but it is easy to miss the larger context for why he teaches on this topic of love.

As the text states, you might have incredible faith, prophetic preaching, extraordinary knowledge, and obedience all the way to death, all given by the Spirit, but if you don’t practice these things for the reason of expressing love as you do them, then ultimately they are worthless. God may well still use such people to accomplish his purposes, but they personally will be considered wicked, because they didn’t reflect the right way to obey.

As Paul revealed about his own ministry, it remains completely possible for him to preach to others and still end up disqualified (1 Cor 9:27). He earlier revealed that if he served as an apostle and preached the gospel for reasons other than voluntarily—like to make money, or to have a good job, or to develop a successful track record of ministry—then he would be “simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward?”

The Holy Spirit may endow people with special powers, abilities, callings, and gifts, but if those expressions are done for any reasons other than to primarily honor the holy name of Jesus, to build up other Christians in the Church, to reflect the living nature of God in Christ, to demonstrate love in everything and for every reason, then it may look good on the outside but remain dead on the inside. Our motives matter to God.

The Spirit clearly warns believers who are willing to listen carefully, that in these end days there will be terrible times where professing Christians will actually be “lovers of themselves”. Their focus will emphasize what looks most beneficial for self, rather than expressing themselves primarily toward what is most beneficial for others. Their attempts at love will flow the wrong direction, like blood that is backing up in a body and trying to go the other direction.

This is the very judgment Jesus pronounces on the Sardis Church as recorded in Revelation: you have a reputation of being alive, but are dead! Or, as he says to the Ephesian Christians, you are obeying and maturing, but I have this one thing against you, you have lost touch with doing what you do in the way of love.

This love is defined by the nature of God, not by the preferences of others, so don’t be deceived into thinking that the world can tell you what this love looks and feels like. They are devoid of anything that comes from God, so their ideas of love are all distortions of the truth. The love of God is modeled in the person of Christ.

This truth might help to clarify the meaning of Jesus’ statement about the servant who brings the food of the master on time, and that after he has done his duty he should still consider himself an unworthy servant. God is after more than just right actions; he desires a right heart in his people–a heart he will provide through Christ, but not one he will impose against our willing participation and faithful application.

“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Lu 17:10)

As James wrote in his letter, Christian religion that doesn’t keep a tight reign on the tongue is worthless. Even claims of faith in Jesus, that lack the actions of the “royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”, are dead. As Jesus confronted the religious Pharisees who were meticulous in obeying Scripture and thinking that it assured them eternal life, “I know your hearts, that the love of God is not in you”.

Profession of faith in God, and even obedience to his commands, remains empty of eternity if it lacks the purpose of expressing the love of God in how we live. This is why the Bible declares that God will judge each person by looking at the motives of their heart. Telling Jesus that he owes a person heaven, because they were faithful in preaching his name, healing people, and casting out demons, just doesn’t cut it. A Christian must obey by demonstrating a desire to love and benefit others rather than gain for self.

It is a sad truth that many professing Christians “live as enemies of the Cross of Christ”. They may believe in Jesus, and even obey what Scripture dictates to Christians, but they live contrary to the “pattern we gave you”–that special, Spirit-led “way” that expresses the God-like love shown through the Cross. This pattern is not about church liturgy, but our active, daily faith-dependent approach of expressing the heart of God in ways that reflect Jesus. In context, Paul says that his prayer is that believers would abound in “greater love”, “filled with the fruit of righteousness”.

“Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” (Phi 3:17-18)

Doctrines that promote “once saved always saved” deceive believers away from this truth, because such a teaching of salvation is entirely based on a claim, rather than on the Christ-reflecting way in which that claim is lived, as Scripture teaches. Ministry and Christian service are ultimately acceptable to God as they reflect the loving way of Christ, as they demonstrate the daily bearing of the cross that through Jesus “so loved the world”.

Mercy, as another word often used in Scripture, is a specific form of love that is expressed as an act of grace toward those who are in debt and can’t pay. Like all of us who owe a debt of death because of our sin against God, the Lord extends mercy toward those who accept his sacrifice on their behalf. This kind of mercy expresses godly love to those who are in desperate circumstances. In turn, those who uphold lawful judgment, but don’t seek for appropriate expressions of mercy, the Bible prophecies will not be shown any mercy by God.

Mercy triumphs over absolute-justice; love triumphs over rote-obedience. Neither ever deny or distort justice or obedience, rather they are the driving desire that lead the way toward righteous, godly, Christ-like living. Christianity must actively express the love of God as the reason and constant purpose for everything done, or it is an empty claim with lifeless activity.

In turn, the word grace, as typically used in Scripture, is another expression of this nature of love that encompasses the very concept of the Christian gospel message as demonstrated by Jesus toward those who believe in him. To express grace, like God expresses it toward us, is to “forgive as God has forgiven you”. This means that grace must be more than just a message that is taught and accepted like facts or knowledge. It must also become an expression toward the salvation and healing of the soul of others. Teaching the gospel must involve the expression of the gospel-truth with an inner desire to extend grace, forgiveness, and mercy to others who are willing to accept it, but who can never earn it, pay for it, or deserve it.

Christians must love one another! To trust and obey, must be according to his Way!

If you want to study further into this amazing love, I recommend the book “Love by definition”.

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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 “” 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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