Monday, December 06, 2010

The Mortification of Sin

"Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all." - Colossians 3:5-11


THE MEANING OF DEATH

Death is always an indicator that there is a problem. The existence of death in the world speaks to us of the fact that we live in a fallen world that has been infiltrated by sin. God did not create this world fallen with death existing in it, but, as Romans 5:12 states, because we sinned death entered into the world. Now we live in a world with death, and one day we too will die. Whenever we witness or experience death, we should always do so with this understanding.

Webster’s Dictionary provides a simple definition of death: the deprivation of life. Deprivation means "a taking away". Thus when life is taken away there is death. A chair has no life, but it did not die. Something can only be called dead if it once had life and then that life was taken away.

In the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the apostle calls upon Christians to engage in the task of putting something to death. This is the word “mortify”. To mortify means to "put to death". This exhortation thus reveals to us two things: 1) something is wrong; there is a problem (since something needs to be put to death), and 2) this something is alive, it is a living thing, and it needs to be put to death. It will not naturally die on its own, but it needs to be put to death by you. If you do nothing about this problem it will not go away, but if you mortify it, then it will.

What exactly is the problem? What does God want us to mortify? The apostle Paul directs our attention to sin - that is, the existence of practical sin in the lives of believers: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” The list isn’t exhaustive but is a sample of those vices which are common to mankind. By saying “members”, Paul means our physical bodies that sin takes control of and uses. It is through our bodies that sin exercises its dominion and manifests it's life. A detailed study of this can be found in Romans 6, 7 and 8 of which I will refer to shortly. The sense of what Paul is saying is this: "Don’t give sin a platform. Put to death that which gives sin an opportunity." It is striking to see the parallel between Paul’s exhortation here and the exhortation of Jesus in the gospels. “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” (Matthew 18:8-9) Both Jesus and Paul are speaking figuratively, and both are exhorting us to put to death that which gives sin an opportunity. Since sin operates through our bodies, we need to know how to deal with this problem. It may be shocking to realize that the New Testament never instructs us to attack sin directly but rather the New Testament constantly directs us to attack that which gives sin it's life. The reason for this is because you will never succeed in defeating sin by attacking it directly, as the Old Testament tells us to do. It is impossible. Sin is a reality that cannot be exterminated head-on, no matter how sincere the endeavor. It is a reality that must be understood and dealt with in a specific manner. We need to understand the nature of sin so that we may know what strategy and weapon to use against it, because pea-shooters won’t work against tanks.

Before we begin exploring the answer to the question at hand, let us first ask what is the reason that Paul tells us to mortify sin. Then we will look at how exactly we mortify sin.


WHY CHRISTIANS SHOULD MORTIFY SIN

Let us first state what the reason for mortifying sin is not. It is not to be saved. The mortification of sin has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins. Paul had just declared to the Colossians that they had already died and risen with Christ and that their life was hid with Christ in God (3:3). This is the true status of every Christian who is exhorted to mortify sin, otherwise they would never be exhorted to mortify sin. A person who is not a Christian is never exhorted to mortify sin but is exhorted to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. Remember the gospel: Christ died for us and saves us freely by His grace through faith in Him. By simply trusting in the finished work of Jesus, no matter how sinful you are, you are justified freely. God forgives you of all of your sins and sees you as perfectly righteous in Christ Jesus. Christ's death and resurrection become yours, and you are therefore blameless in the sight of God. Now in verse 5, Paul is no longer speaking about salvation, nor is he undermining the truth he just set down. What he is dealing with now is the question of your practical walk on earth now that you are a Christian, spiritually seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6). So you are forgiven of all your sins past, present and future - so now what? It is to this question that Paul now addresses believers.

Paul similarly wrote elsewhere: "Live your life suitably according to the gospel" (Ephesians 4:1). You’ll see in verse 6 that we are reminded of God’s wrath which comes upon the children of disobedience on account of these sins. Christians are no longer in that camp, but we once were (3:7). We have been saved by the blood of Christ from the wrath of God that would have come upon us. We have seen how these sins are detestable to God. Therefore, now that we are saved from the penalty of these sins, we ought to not walk in them any longer. It only makes sense. It’s reasonable (Romans 12:1). “Lie not one to another, seeing you have put off the old man with his deeds.” (3:9) Loving God because He first loved us means that we consider what He loves and hates, and we seek to no longer do those things that we know His righteousness condemns, though we are already saved from their penalty. This has nothing to do us having to do it. It is all about us wanting to do it out of love for our God who first loved us. Grace (God’s unmerited favor) is teaching us to do this, not law (Titus 2:12). “Mortify therefore.”


THE WAY TO MORTIFY SIN

Now how exactly do we go about mortifying sin? I mentioned before that we need to know the correct strategy and weapon to mortify sin, and knowing this requires knowing our enemy. The old strategies are not working. No, not all the armies in the world will avail in mortifying sin, because until we understand the nature of what sin is we will never succeed in our efforts to kill it. The sad fact is that most people do not know what the nature of sin is and therefore do not know how to go about mortifying it.

The experience of the common religious person is as follows: You become aware of the reality of God and start out excited about the prospect of having a relationship with Him. God’s ways are beautiful to you and you feel that when you obey Him God is smiling down on you. But it is not long until you realize sin is still a problem in your life. You want to get rid of it. You acknowledge that it is sin and a bad thing to do. You feel that your sin is keeping you from having an intimate relationship with God. When you sin you feel that God is perturbed at you, annoyed that you did it again for what seems like the millionth time. You begin promising that you will not do it again. You hope that by your promise God’s favor will be restored toward you, buying you enough time to prove to Him that you mean business. But you sin again. You begin to get desperate. You start feeling that there may be no hope for you to have a relationship with God. You cry and pray that God will take the sin away but He doesn't. Even though you are sinning, you hope that your sincerity and your desires will make God favorable toward you. This course of action soon runs dry because you can’t keep the weary one-way relationship going. You then start trying to motivate yourself to stop sinning by fear: “How can I do this when Christ died for me? Do I really want to go to hell? How can I choose sin over a relationship with God?” But you discover that fear doesn't work, for you are still sinning, despite all your fears, only now you feel worse. Now you begin to despair. You start to think that you are the only Christian who sins. You feel like the Bible condemns you on every page. You feel like Jesus is disgusted with you. You are ready to quit, saying, “I guess Christianity isn’t for me. I can't do it. I’m just not good enough.”

Do you think this experience is common? This is extremely common. Most people are on different stages in this process. If you are currently somewhere in this process you are going about it all wrong.

You see, understanding what sin is and that it is bad isn’t enough. Lots of people know what they want to do but they just don’t know how to do it. This common religious experience is described in the seventh chapter of the book of Romans. Do you remember? “The good that I want to do I do not, but the evil that I don’t want to do, I do. I acknowledge the law is good, but I don’t know how to perform it.” Do you know what the problem is? Romans 7 tells us plainly: the sin that dwells in him. This thing called sin exists within his nature and has taken captive his body so that he cannot do what he wants to do. Sin is controlling this person like a puppet. However, when Paul says that “it is no longer I that do it but sin that dwells in me” there is no sense of the alleviation of responsibility. He is not saying that he is not guilty; rather, he is acknowledging the depravity of his own nature that justly deserves damnation, even though there is a part of him that sees the good and wants to do it. His mind cannot overcome his nature. His desire for good is perpetually trumped by his desire for bad. Thus he says, “For I know that in me dwelleth no good thing.” He’s saying, “I am a bad guy. I know with my brain what is good and I even want to do it, but in my essential nature I’m totally corrupt.” His nature just doesn’t have the power to obey what he knows is right.

In Romans 7 the word “law” is used 23 times in 25 verses; more than the word “for” “is” “to” and “of”. Romans 7 describes the common religious experience of living under the law. The law is not bad, for it is God's law, and it makes it's just demands upon you. Trying to obey the law by your own power and ability is, theologically speaking, called the “flesh”. The flesh is your human power, strength and ability attempting to keep the law. But it cannot be done. You cannot stop sinning by the flesh. It is not the right weapon to use against sin. Mortifying sin cannot be done through the flesh, because no matter how hard you try or how sincerely you want to obey the law, you will always fail because you cannot overcome your own sinful nature. Human resolve cannot defeat human depravity. This is the painful lesson of Romans chapter 7.

Now I want to show you the solution to the problem that the Bible enthusiastically tells us. Did you know that the Bible tells us there is a solution to the problem - that there is victory over sin? If there wasn't Paul would never tell us to mortify sin in Colossians 3:5. The Bible most optimistically tells us the way to defeat sin, but it is surprising to the extreme, because it is absolutely counter-intuitive; that is, it goes against the grain of how we would normally think. It is not what we would expect, and it is not by attacking sin directly.

The Biblical weapon for mortifying sin is God’s grace. It is forcefully declared in Romans 6:14: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under law but under grace.” In actual fact, sin only has dominion over us so long as we are under law, but once we are freed from law and begin to live under grace sin cannot have dominion any longer. This is a most shocking and radical truth. Paul is actually answering an objection leveled at the gospel of grace in Romans 6:1, which argues: "If we preach grace people are going to sin! If we do not preach the law, then what's to stop people from sinning?" Natural wisdom cannot conceive beyond this. But Paul surprisingly turns the whole argument completely on its head: "It is actually the law that causes sin to have dominion over us, and it is only grace that frees us from the dominion of sin!" Contrary to what we may have thought, the objector has it totally backwards. Of course the question is: how does grace do it?

Notice in Romans 7:8-13 how sin is spoken of as a living thing. “For without the law sin is dead. For I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.” (Rom. 7:8-9) Sin is something that comes to life, and therefore sin is something that may be put to death. But how does sin come to life? The answer is of such importance, for once we know how sin gets it's life, we shall then know how to put sin to death: by taking away that which gives sin life! The answer is so easily seen in the passage, it is a wonder how so many can miss it. Sin comes to life by the law. In this we are taught the most amazingly profound truth. Sin lives by law; law gives sin it's vitality so that it controls our bodies. "For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death." (Rom. 7:5). How does the law give sin life? The law gives sin life by giving sin an occasion, an opportunity to rebel. It is sin’s nature to rebel when commanded to do something. This is what it will do every time. Have ever felt that within yourself? Have you ever noticed that when you are commanded to do something and you don’t have the freedom to say no, you will naturally feel a resistance within and a desire to rebel? This is simply the reality of fallen human nature. It is called sin. One writer, C.H. Mackintosh, well said concerning this: “If I am not consciously free, I shall be seeking to attain liberty in the strangest way possible.” Do you see that? “If I am not consciously free.” We have a perverse desire to be free, to be our own god. Our personal autonomy is more important to us than God's holy law. Because we are sinners we rebel against constraint no matter how good and wonderful it is - no matter how healthy it shall be to us - for we are depraved by pride and have a hardened intransigence against authority. What then shall deliver us? The situation is humanely impossible. How can wretched sinners as we be saved and delivered from sin and have relationship with God who is jealous for His glory when everything within us shouts "no"?

The amazing answer is the gospel of God’s grace. Did you know that even though you are indeed full of pride and will not keep the holy law of God, God loves you still? Did you know that God knows that your path is destruction but does not desire for you to perish, for He loves you still? Did you know that God is kind and merciful to terrible sinners? Did you know that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, died upon a cross for your wicked sins, to save you by sheer undeserved grace, because He loves you still? Did you know that He suffered and died in agony so that you could be free? God did this all for you because He loves you with a love that cannot be quenched by many waters. We are talking about a love that is beyond anything we have ever known or will ever know. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16) "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 4:10) "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8) You will never find a love like this in all the world except in one place alone: Calvary. It is a love that loves no matter what; a love that extends even to it's enemies; a love that gives all, even the highest price.

Now see how the gospel is not anything like the law at all. In His hand Christ holds out the free gift of eternal life so that you can take it by faith and receive the salvation of your soul. He says, “Come unto me, you who are dying of hunger and thirst.” He appeals to your need. You have need, and He has provided for you. You are going to hell, and He can save you from it. He appeals to your self-interest. He does not say “Come and serve me”, He says, “Come and let me serve you.” He warrants you to come for no other reason than to be saved. Do you want to be saved? He wants you to be saved too! Jesus died to save you! It is in your best interest to come. He appeals to your freedom. He does not force you, but invites you: "Whosoever will, let him come." This is not a law that will provoke you to rebellion. This is a free offer for your well-being that you can choose to accept or reject.

Come ye sinners, come and welcome;
God’s free bounty glorify!

What a marvelously beautiful Savior who is genuinely concerned with your well-being! How can you resist such a One, who has met your need by dying in your place to spare you from the wrath of God that ought justly to fall upon you for your evil? Oh, how He loves you!

Grace, not law, causes us to respond to God in the freedom of love. The natural instinct to rebel is gone once the law is no longer in the equation. Grace makes it no longer about us having to do anything, therefore sin has no more opportunity to rebel anymore. And as the law caused sin to come to life, so now God’s grace (His unmerited favor demonstrated at the cross) causes holiness and worship to come to life. We freely respond to such incomprehensible love by willingly giving to God all glory and praise from our hearts. As Jesus said, it is from the heart that all the issues of life flow out. Once our hearts are melted by the love of God, our actions cannot but follow. Sin is put to death by the grace of God, and holiness and worship find their occasion. Our bodies are no longer a platform for sin, but a platform for righteousness. Thus grace is the Biblical weapon of mortification. This, and this alone, is how we mortify sin and reclaim our bodies for holy use.

Let's go back to the example of the person struggling in that process of the common religious experience. Remember how they were trying to fight against sin by the flesh and ended up despairing, ready to quit altogether? All of that could have been avoided if, instead of thinking that their relationship with God depended upon their performance by law, they saw that God has freely loved them by dying for them upon the cross for all their sins past, present and future so that nothing in all the world could ever separate them from the love of God. How different would things be then! If only they saw that a relationship with God is theirs for the taking by simple faith in Jesus Christ. Christianity is not about trying to make God favorable toward you; it is about believing the good news that God in fact is favorable toward you, and that His favor has nothing to do with your performance! Until we believe and walk in this revelation of grace we will forever be defeated and will never enjoy a relationship with God. Life will be hard and wearisome, and many will give up. But if we believe and walk in the reality of God’s love and grace that has been revealed to us 2000 years ago at Calvary, we shall experience the opposite effect: righteousness, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit!

Every exhortation for Christian living in the New Testament is simply one spiritual worshipper directing other spiritual worshippers in joyful practical response to the sin-bearing love of God. We also can encourage and exhort one another to love and good deeds as we point to the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus. Life is no longer about rules, but relationship!


CLOSING THOUGHTS

“And have put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after Him that created Him: where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (3:10-11)

We can now understand why the New Testament tells us everywhere that the Christian life is all about the renewal of our minds from law to grace. In this verse the renewal of the mind is not a one time event but a constant, continual renewing. Every single day we can experience the transforming power of grace by setting our mind on the truth of God's love for us in Christ Jesus. Every single day is a new day to mortify sin by not giving it an opportunity by the law. Every single day is a new day to worship the Lord and give thanks to His Name when we remember His great mercy that endures forever. The mortification of sin is not a one time event, just like worshipping God is not a one time event. Day to day, either sin will revive or worship will revive in accordance with what we set our minds upon: law or grace.

The Christian life is all about renewing our knowledge and reminding ourselves of who God is and what He has done for us. As we grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord, we will stop judging ourselves and others based upon who they are and what they do, but we will see only Christ and what He is for us. "Christ is all and in all." To see only Christ and what He is to us, excluding all other considerations, means not only the mortification of sin, but us being transformed by the power of the amazing grace of God.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Cache Valley Evangelical Statement of Faith

The Cache Valley Evangelical Statement of Faith was written by a gathering of pastors in Cache Valley from a variety of denominational backgrounds to signify our unity and togetherness in our Lord Jesus Christ:

The Bible - We believe that the Bible is the only inspired, infallible and authoritative Word of God, and that God has kept His promise to preserve His Word. Further, we hold that the Bible is the final authority for all Christian doctrine and practice.

The Trinity - We believe that there is one unchanging God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect and eternally existing in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Father - We believe that God the Father is an infinite, personal Spirit, perfect in holiness, justice, wisdom, power and love. He concerns Himself mercifully in the affairs of men and women, hears and answers prayer, and saves from sin and eternal death all who come to Him through Jesus Christ.

The Son - We believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, fully God and fully man, having been conceived through the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin. He lived a sinless life, was crucified, was buried and was raised bodily from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father as our High Priest and Advocate.

The Holy Spirit - We believe that the Holy Spirit is a divine Person, equal with the Father and with the Son and of the same nature. His ministry is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ and implement Christ's work of redeeming the lost and of empowering the believer for godly living, service and witness.

The Human Condition - We believe that God created Adam and Eve in His image and for His glory, but they rebelled and sinned and incurred physical, spiritual and eternal death. As a consequence, all their offspring are born with a sinful nature and are sinners by choice and therefore under condemnation.

The Work of Christ - We believe that salvation is by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, and is received apart from any human merit, works or ritual. This salvation was purchased by the shed blood of Jesus Christ when He died on the cross for our sins and is guaranteed by His resurrection. This finished work of Jesus Christ is the only and all sufficient grounds for justification and eternal life with the Father. All who turn to Jesus Christ by faith are freely forgiven of all their sins, are born of the Holy Spirit, and have become the children of God, and are delivered from all condemnation.

The New Life in Christ - We believe that those made a new creation in Christ are now no longer slaves to sin and are set free for good works. They are made right with God apart from their own works by the work of Christ on the cross. The Holy Spirit recreates them to be eager for good works.

The True Church - We believe that the true Church is comprised of all who have been justified by God's grace through faith alone in Christ alone. They are united by the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ, of which Christ is the Head. The true Church is composed only of believers and is manifested in local churches. The Lord Jesus has called His Church to glorify God by making disciples of all nations. His Church is given two ordinances, baptism and the Lord's Supper, which visibly and tangibly proclaim the gospel.

The Future - We believe that Christ will return and that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning those who are in Christ to everlasting life and joy with the Lord, and those not in Christ to judgment and everlasting conscious punishment in the lake of fire.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

True Christianity

"For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness comes by the law, the Christ is dead in vain." - Galatians 2:19-21

This passage contains an amazing lesson in religion, a lesson that, if missed, will cost us dearly. I have found that many people who profess to be religious haven’t the slightest idea what this lesson is, and even many Christians, though they have read this passage and others like it a hundreds times, do not understand what the apostle Paul is truly talking about. The importance of this verse can easily be felt at first glance. We must stop to consider it; to ask, what does he mean? Too often when people read the Bible they assume they already know what it means and that they already know all there is to know about religion before they pick the Bible up. Thus their reading of the Bible is obscured and they are not able to see what is actually being said by it. This is the behavior of fools. I was once like that and speak from personal experience. Let us not do that as we look to and consider this passage.

The apostle Paul is also speaking from personal experience. He is not talking about people out there, but about himself: “I”. Something had happened to this man that radically changed the way he thought about everything: about God, about himself, about religion. To observe Paul saying that he is “dead to law” is an amazing thing when you consider that this man was at one time the greatest champion of law on the face of the earth. He was zealous for the law, and he saw Christianity as a threat to law (a threat to all that was good and holy). He was so zealous for the law that he began traveling to different cities in order to bring Christians to trial and to totally annihilate Christianity altogether. You must understand that he did this because of his zeal for the law. So many times we think that the persecution of Christians has to do with them being hated by the sinful world because Christians are so very good! This is an absolutely false view of what persecution is all about. Paul was not a man who desired to sin and who therefore hated the pious and holy Christians. Paul was a pious Pharisee, and if you were to see his pre-Christian life you would have been shocked by it's apparent morality. Many people would probably feel he never needed to become a Christian at all, that he was just fine. But they do not see with spiritual eyes.

Paul was zealous for the law, but now we read him saying: “I through the law am dead to the law that I might live unto God.” What does this statement mean? It’s meaning is of utmost importance. The most incredible thing it tells us is this: that if we are not dead to the law, we are not alive unto God. Let me say that again: If we are not dead to the law, we are not alive unto God. Paul was spiritually dead before he became a Christian, though he believed and thought that he had a relationship with God. Had he died at that time he would have gone to hell. He did not have eternal life. Now this is greatly shocking, because for most people the law is the way in which they relate to God. That’s how religion works in people’s minds: you do what God commands you to do and then you reap the benefits of a relationship with God. That is what law means. God’s commands are law, whatever moral things he requires you to do, and if you do them you get rewarded, and if you don’t do them you don’t get rewarded. Law is what every man and woman naturally understands, for God gave us a conscience. Law is a very real thing. Paul here acknowledges the reality of law. It is not a man-made fiction. God indeed has a law and it sets its demands upon every single living person. When you are born into this world you are born under God’s law, whether you are Jew or Gentile. The law he is speaking of here is not restricted to the law of Moses, but God's law in general (Rom. 2:14-15). It is the moral obligations that we all are under when we are born regardless of who we are. In a nutshell, you can sum it all up in two simple commands: Love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and, Love your neighbor as yourself. These two commands are comprehensive: if you were to obey these two commands you would never again sin and thus you would be righteous before God by law. The scary thing is, if you are under the law, you must obey these commands because God obligates you to do so. There is no flexibility when it comes to doing what is right with God. You must not sin, and if you do not obey God then you are unacceptable to God. If you do not do what God requires of you (and He does require it) then to hell you will justly go, for that is what you deserve for not obeying God. You prove yourself worthy of death for not obeying a good law from a good God to which your conscience assents. This is how the law works.

Of course, before Paul became a Christian he did not think he was a guilty person at all, and thought he was obedient to the law. There are billions of people like him today. Most non-Christians do not think they are worthy of death, but they think they deserve to go to heaven. This is because they refuse to acknowledge the law for what it really is. Yes, Paul, the champion of law, did not acknowledge the law. Oh, he knew what it said, but he did not take seriously what it required. What happens is that sinful men who want to be religious redefine what the law means so that they can feel good about themselves and have others feel good about them. So they say that “all” doesn’t really mean all, but "most of the time". "Do" really just means "try". Fornication only means having intercourse with someone who is not your spouse, not lust. Murder is only when you take a life, not hatred in your heart. Somehow you can still sin and be obedient to law, because the law's requirements have been redefined. In this way bad people fool themselves into thinking they are good. But the truth about the law came to the apostle Paul, penetrating his soul like a sword. He now states: “I through the law am dead to the law.” Meaning, the law itself brought me to a place where I died to it. The law did something, and that something meant death to law. It was when the law was seen for what it really was that Paul, forced to give in, died to it (Rom. 7:9). As he writes later in this very same letter, this is in fact the whole purpose of the law: the law was given by God, not to teach us how to be good people, but to teach us that we are not good people. The law was given by God to crush our human moral perceptions, to destroy our hope in our own goodness, to kill us at our self-righteous center. None of us are good, but all of us think we are good until the law has been shown to us in all it's deadly perfection. Once we see who we really are in the light of the law of God we die to the law as the way to be righteous before God and as the way to relate to God.

But where is the best place to see the law for what it really is? Is it by studying the law, the first five books of the Bible? While it can be seen by doing that, Paul was a student of the law and he didn’t see it, because as I said before, when left alone men twist and redefine the requirements of the law to suit themselves. There must be a more indelible place to see. And there is. The greatest setting forth of what the law truly is, which God Himself publicly set forth as the true interpretation of His own law, is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The cross is the ultimate illumination of the law. We see this in the words of the apostle Paul: “I am crucified with Christ.” This was the moment of transformation in Paul's life. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus Paul had the most important revelation of his life: "That man Jesus who was crucified is actually the Holy One of Israel! God raised Jesus from the dead because He is in truth the Holy Messiah... the One who is speaking to me now is the Christ! But if He didn’t die for His own sins (as I thought He had) since He is the Holy One... for whose did He die?" The Scriptures that this Pharisee knew so well must have come flooding back to him in a rush of new understanding: “All we like sheep have gone astray, each one of us have turned our own way, and the Lord laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.” “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5-6) Paul saw his own death in the death of Jesus Christ. He saw that Jesus had died on the cross because he, Paul, was a sinner worthy of death, despite all his reputed law-obedience. It was all dung. It was worth nothing. He was not righteous before God by the law, otherwise Christ would not have died. “If righteousness came by the law, then Christ died for nothing!” (Gal. 2:21) The cross of Christ is the once and for all statement that all men are sinners and that the law cannot make them righteous.

So you see, this crucifixion with Christ is not something that as Christians we are to be constantly striving to attain, as is so often heard: “You need to be crucified with Christ, Christian!” No. If you are a Christian, if you have come to the end of the law and put your faith in Jesus Christ for your justification, then you are crucified with Christ and you are dead to the law. His death was your death, and in God’s sight you are dead, your punishment has been paid, and the law has no more jurisdiction over you. What does the law have to say to a dead man? Your status before God has totally changed. This is what this verse is saying. Your status is changed. You don’t need to get crucified because you are crucified, and your life is now in Christ and you no longer relate to God by law. When you were under law you were dead to God because of your sins, but now that you have been crucified with Christ and have died to the law, you are no longer a sinner in God’s sight, but are alive unto God in Christ Jesus. God sees you as perfectly righteous, as righteous as Christ, because your identity is now in Him and not on your own apart from Him. This is what it is to be a Christian!

And what now? How shall our lives be lived as Christians? Since we are no longer under the law and no longer under any obligation to God’s commandments whatsoever (for indeed we are not), what then shall motivate us to do good works and live a life to the glory of God? Will we keep God's commandments, even if we don’t have to? The glory of this gospel is that the answer to this question does not lie somewhere outside of the gospel, but in the very same place where we started. Before the apostle Paul became a Christian he was a zealous man, but after Paul became a Christian he was even more zealous. We look at his life and are amazed at his love and passion for God and for people. Now here in Galatians 2:20 he is telling us the secret to his life. That which compelled him had nothing to do with law. Paul’s life was not lived because he had to do things. That kind of a motivation eventually breaks down after not too long; there’s no power in it, and doing things simply because you have to is not pleasing to God. God wants us to do what we do because we want to, from the heart, and not out of compulsion.

What then is the motivation and power for living? It is found in the very same place where we started: in Christ crucified. Paul states: “The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” There it is. It must be read all together. The life that he now lives as a Christian, he lives by the faith in the Son of God who loved Him and gave Himself for him. That was it! That was the secret of the apostle Paul. As Paul believed that Christ had loved him and had gave Himself for him on the cross, he was filled with response to the love of God. When we see the love of Christ for us, we cannot resist it, we cannot fail to respond to it, for there is no love like it, and it overwhelms us and calls us to action, not out of fear but out of gratitude and desire. Nobody loves us like Jesus does! Paul saw that God did not just love him in some pathetically small and cliché way (as the world speaks of love), but with a love incomprehensible, that cannot be seen anywhere except at the cross of Christ: where Jesus Christ gave His own life for us - not for good people, but for bad people! "For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:7-8) We, who are unworthy sinners, He died for. Jesus died for you because He loves you. That was the reason. There was nothing that He owed you. It was pure love. That’s how much God loves you, my dear friends. How can you reject that? To walk away here is to walk away from true love, and you will never find such love anywhere else in all the world. You will never know such a wonderful person as God. There is no one like Him. And His love is enough for you to live your whole life on, and even to give up your life for Him if you ever had to.

The Christian life starts with the cross, it is carried on by the cross, and it ends with the cross, only to be ushered into that blessed eternal bliss of redeemed men and women worshiping the Lamb for the triumph of the cross! That is what Christianity is all about! The love of God revealed in Christ crucified. Can you seriously propose something better than this? Many people who profess to be Christians have no concept of what Paul is talking about here in Galatians 2:19-21. They thought Christianity was all about being a good person, keeping rules and following the law. They thought they had a relationship with God because they pray, or go to church, or read their Bibles, or do good deeds and don't do certain bad things. But we must learn this lesson in religion: if you are not dead to the law then you are not alive to God. The law condemns you and nothing more. You need to come to the place where you, like Paul, die to the law - when your righteousness, hope and relationship with God is no longer determined by law but by Christ crucified, who died for your sins so that you could be righteous before God by faith in Him.

Only the person who has believed in this way is a Christian. And if you are a Christian, here is what you should do now: live your life by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself for you. Don’t look anywhere else for motivation. Keep your eyes fixed upon the place where it all started, and remember that Christ gave Himself for you because He loved you, and nothing can ever change that. You are loved perfectly right now by God, and nothing can ever be added or taken away from that. Think about it! And live your life as a response to God’s amazing love.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Understanding the Covenants

Understanding the covenants is of paramount importance to understanding the Bible, and it is the main key in understanding the mystery of Israel in these last days.

The confusion arises from not distinguishing between the Abrahamic and the Sinaitic covenants. Many lump these two things together into one when it ought not be done. The Abrahamic covenant is a unilateral (one-way) covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants, promising to make them a nation, bless them, and give them the land of Canaan forever. The Sinaitic covenant was a bilateral (two-way) covenant that God made with Israel after bringing them out of Egypt, guaranteeing them blessings or curses based upon obedience or disobedience to the conditions of the covenant. The Abrahamic covenant knows of no such conditions; in fact, despite Israel's ongoing disobedience, God continued to remember His unilateral covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and so continued to be faithful to the nation of Israel even though they were perpetually rebellious and broke all the terms of the Sinaitic covenant. This is the amazing drama throughout Scripture - the tension between God's one-way covenant and the two-way covenant of the law.

"And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise." (Gal. 3:17-18)

Thus we believe that the original promise God made to Abraham concerning his people and the land still stands - it is irrevocable - yet because the law was introduced as a condition for enjoying it, a tension now exists between God's promise that they would possess it and Israel's inability to possess it by law. As Paul continues on, he explains why the law was given. It was given to teach us that we must turn to Christ to be justified by faith. Israel will dwell safely in the land in the future once they turn in faith to Jesus Christ. When Christ comes the second time He will gather them and plant them in the land "with His whole heart and with His own soul" (Jer. 32:37-44) because at that time Israel shall know God - Jesus - as "the Lord our Righteousness." (Jer. 23:6). Thus the original Abrahamic promise will be fulfilled and the law will be established... both by Jesus Christ. It is when God finally fulfills His promise to Abraham by bringing in the rebellious nation to inherit the land forever that God will be publicly glorified in the eyes of all nations (read Num. 14:10-21 carefully and prayerfully). Bringing Israel into the land is God's "mission impossible"! When He does, all the earth will know that Jehovah is God, and what kind of God He is! A God of grace and righteousness - a God who keeps His promises despite our sin.

Thus we find that Jesus did not come to do away with, but to confirm, the promises made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

"Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers." (Rom. 15:8)

"As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers' sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance." (Rom. 11:28-29)

These are powerful verses to be reckoned with.

So when we read in Jeremiah 31 (and quoted in Hebrews 8) that God is going to make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, we take that to mean just that: with the nation of Israel (understanding that many Gentiles are added to it, and that in the end the natural branches that were broken off shall be grafted back in again). The new covenant is established in Christ's blood; it is the gospel. Yet what it replaces is the old covenant; and what is the old covenant? Not the Abrahamic covenant, but the Sinaitic covenant, as it explicitly says! "Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant..." (Heb. 8:9) It is explicit: it is the two-way covenant made at Sinai when God brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt, not the one-way covenant that God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and which Jesus Christ came to confirm! Thus the law, the old Sinaitic covenant of works, is replaced by the gospel new covenant, to the intent that Israel inherits the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - that the promises which God spoke to the patriarchs might be fulfilled for Israel in Christ.

That is the context of Jeremiah 31:31 which so often gets overlooked. Most of the Church is made up of Gentiles now so we don't fully grasp the Jewish framework of the gospel nor appreciate the essence of the Abrahamic covenant. It seems we have lost the original "hope of Israel" (Acts 28:20). Israel in the land means God's public glory in the earth without which it can never otherwise be revealed. I suggest we do much meditation upon Numbers 14:21, for it is in this context that God declares that "as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD." When we re-read the prophets in this light, their words explode with life and the New Testament with new eschatological meaning.

Thus we must distinguish between the Abrahamic and the Sinaitic covenant, not lumping them erroneously together, if we are to see the true meaning and glory of the new covenant with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah."

Toward a Biblical Eschatology

The following is a letter written to a Christian brother concerning premillennialism and the people of God.


Hey M---, I hope all is well with you too, brother. Love hearing from you!

When it comes to eschatology, misunderstandings abound. One of the greatest misunderstanding of all is that there are essentially only two views Christians can take on Israel: Supercessionism or Dispensationalism. Dispensationalists can't stand Supercessionism, and Supercessionists can't stand Dispensationalism. It is automatically assumed that if one does not hold to Supercessionism they are Dispensational, and if one does not hold to Dispensationalism they are Supercessionist. That is an unfortunate and needless "catch 22" that shouldn't exist. Let me say that I am neither a Supercessionist nor a Dispensationalist. I believe in one people of God and only one. In this I wholeheartedly agree with you and the Supercessionists. However, I also believe that Jewish people, even the non-believing Jewish people, are still in the game and are not superseded by the Church, and I also believe in the premillennial kingdom of national Israel that is to come at the second coming of Jesus Christ. I do not believe there are two peoples of God - Israel and the Church - and I do not believe in the pretribulational rapture or the Left Behind series! But I am premillennial. Not all premillennialists are Dispensationalists.

What's interesting to me is that there is a current move in the amillennial camp away from older amillennialistic doctrine and a growing embrace of the notion that a mass conversion of Israel will occur at the end of the age. Of course there have been exceptions in the past, but it is interesting that this idea is gaining much popularity today. Even the forsaking of the term "Replacement" is a noteworthy evidence of this, whereas in times past it was a term that was used freely by amillennialists. So though it may have been used derogatorily by Dispensationalists, it certainly wasn't strictly a derogatory word (mind you, Supercessionists use the term "Dispensational" derogatorily as well!).

But the implications of this movement in the amillennial camp toward seeing a mass conversion of Israel is profound. If this be true, why? Does this mean that God's covenant with His original people still stands? Does this mean that unbelieving Israel still has a part to play in God's redemptive plan? If so, why should we stop only with the conversion of the Jews? Why not embrace the full covenantal promise of the land of Israel and the kingdom of David? It seems to me that such a movement is arbitrarily stopping short of believing in the fulfillment of all the promises of God to Israel. If you concede the one, why not concede them all? They are likewise promised. Such a concession in the amillennial camp is in my estimation a huge leap towards premillennialism, even if at this time they don't see it. Many amillennialists today are even believing in the restoration of this very earth and in the earthly kingly rule of Jesus Christ on it. But why not believe in the earthly kingly rule of Jesus on this earth in Israel? Stopping short of this seems arbitrary and unexegetical.

If the argument of Gal. 3:28 is given, then premillennialists can give a perfectly reasonable answer: there exists in Christ diversity in unity. Just like the Trinity and just like a family, there is diversity, even priority, but this diversity in no way destroys the oneness of the unity. If there is no more male and female in Christ, why do we still acknowledge maleness and femaleness in our Christian communities? Because there still exists male and female diversity! And therefore there still exists Jew and Gentile (as Paul himself owns: "I myself am a Jew"). The point of Galatians 3:28 and Ephesians 2 is that regarding our access to God through Christ there is no racial boundaries. "And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby." (Eph. 2:16) Both Jew and Gentile are reconciled to God in one body: in Christ. That's the whole point. But the breakdown of diversity goes no further than this. God still sees the diversity of His creation even though when it comes to being reconciled to Himself in Christ Jesus there are no distinctions.

As you have well pointed out in Romans 11, there is only one people of God. The Church is Israel - Israel as Israel has always been with all her covenants and promises. There is not a new Israel; there is only the same old Israel that God has always known: but some of the natural branches have been cut off (Jews who haven't believed) and many wild branches have been grafted in (Gentiles who have believed). Israel is the same. It is essentially Jewish. It is still the nation that came from Abraham. All the covenants and promises are still true for her, only there has been a mysterious shifting around of her members. Though, as many amillennialists are seeing, God still has a purpose for those unbelieving Jews: He is able to graft them in again! How much more since they are natural branches! And He will indeed do so at the end of the age, when all the broken off branches will be brought back into Israel to be joined with the saved Gentiles and remnant of believing Jews that were not cut off; not two people but one. But as Gentiles are enjoying an unusual habitat in the tree, those Jews will be coming home.

You see, you don't need to be a Dispensationalist and believe in two peoples of God (banish that horrid thought!) to be a premillennialist, and you don't need to be an amillennial Supercessionist to believe in one people of God. Sadly, most people in both extreme camps don't know this. I am convinced that the view that I hold is both exegetically sound, reasonable and consistent with all the other doctrines that I believe. I am premillennial, and I believe in one people of God. On the contrary, I believe that to be Supercessionist is to be inconsistent with one's view of sovereign grace and with the tried and true method of Biblical interpretation. Why would the God who has always spoken clearly, who always finishes what He begins, who never revokes His gifts and callings, disannull His covenants and promises He made with the Jews? Because of their disobedience? No... that is not the God that we know.

Why should it be thought impossible or strange that God should raise the dead nation of Israel and fulfill His Abrahamic/Davidic covenant with them in time and space on this very earth? What amazing public glory it shall be when the Lord Jesus Christ returns in full vision to the whole earth to fulfill the promises made to the fathers. Glory! Count me in!

Love you dearly my brother,
Yours,
-Eli

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How Grace and Works Fit Together

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." - Ephesians 2:8-10


Notice how works are mentioned three times in this passage. First, we are saved by grace through faith and not of works. Works have absolutely nothing to do with us being saved. If we say that we have to have works to be saved then we flatly contradict this Scripture.

Secondly, our salvation is the work of God. We are His workmanship. He is the one who worked so that we could be saved without works. He died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead. We don't work but receive by faith the gift of God that He worked for.

Lastly, we are saved unto, or for, good works. We are not saved by good works, but God saved us so that we would be people who do good works. When Christians stress the fact that works have nothing to do with salvation it often comes across that we are saying that Christians have nothing to do with works at all. This of course isn't true, but we simply need to understand where works fit in and where they don't. If we place works in the wrong place we destroy the gospel and forfeit the reception of salvation (Gal. 2:21, 5:4), so that is why we take this so seriously.

Therefore whenever we hear someone say that works have something to do with being saved (notice I didn't say with salvation) we immediately recognize it is not the gospel. The gospel is all about grace: receiving something you don't work for. "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." (Rom. 4:4-5) We do not believe grace in this context has to do with God graciously working in us to do works. That is for another context. This context has do with receiving the gift of justification without the necessity of doing any works at all - not even those works which God works in us. Notice!

"Now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested..." (Rom. 3:21)
"To the man that does not work..." (Rom. 4:5)
"David describes the blessedness of the man unto whom God counts righteousness without works..." (Rom. 4:6)
"Not of works..." (Eph. 2:9)

It is "not of works"! Being saved has nothing to do with works, even the works that God does through us (for that is for after we are saved: Eph. 2:10, Phil. 1:6, 2:13, Titus 2:14, 3:8). This is talking about the absolute absence of the necessity of works for being saved. This is what the gospel is all about!

And as I have said elsewhere (which is the point I must stress again), it is not faith that produces love in us (love, which is the essence of all good works), but it is the object of faith that does this, and the only object of faith that does this is the gospel as stated above. Only the belief that God justifies the ungodly without any necessity of works because God loves you and died on the cross for your sins so that you can be saved freely as a gift produces the resultant response of love in our lives. It is when we believe in the love of God toward us as demonstrated in the "unspeakable gift" of the death of His Son that we truly understand what love is and respond accordingly. So we must banish the idea that mere faith produces works and that works are required to be saved. The true Biblical principle, which I will paraphrase from Gal. 5:6, is that faith in the love revealing gospel of justification by faith without works produces in us the love which moves us to do good works. That is the true relationship between faith and works, and how salvation and works fit together.

So ironically, when we start telling people that they must have works to be saved, and when we get them stop looking at the freeness of the gift of God's love but rather at themselves and their works, we sever the root of fruit-bearing. We may be sincere in our desire to see people bear fruit, but we actually are fighting against the cause. The truth is, the grace of God is counter-intuitive. If you preach that men do not have to do works to be saved since God has provided everything necessary for them because He loves them, they will actually produce the fruit of love. If we preach that they must do works to be saved (however we explain it), we will actually see just the opposite. No one will be saved, and everyone will become miserable, not knowing the true love and grace of God, and will therefore behave accordingly.

Contrary to what the wisdom of the world may think, grace is the only answer to man's sin problem. God's grace through Christ justifies us and saves us, and that same grace also sanctifies and changes us, making us living reflectors of the love of God in Christ Jesus which we have personally believed and experienced. As John Newton said so well, it truly is "amazing grace"!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Grace to Live By

It is no difficult thing to trust in something once you have confidence in that which you are trusting. What we need is confidence in God's grace - that God's grace is powerful enough to both save us and to live our lives by - and that we don't need to be constantly kept in check by law (rules). This was (and is) the main objection to the message of God's grace: "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" (Rom. 6:1) But Paul's answer is wonderful: "Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14) Paul had confidence that grace would not - no, could not - cause sin to reign in a person's life. In fact, it was ONLY grace that would be able to free a person from the dominion of sin. Let's face it, the law hasn't done this for us, has it? We may tell ourselves 50 times a day that we are not allowed to do this or that, or vow to God a hundred times that we won't sin, and guess what? We will sin. You don't need a license to sin. We sin just fine under law. What we need is to come under the cleansing power of God's grace and of His love. This alone will free us.

The entire doctrine of sanctification in Romans 6, 7 and 8 can be summed up in two verses in Galatians:

"For I through the law am dead to the law that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. The life that I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me." (Gal. 2:19-20)

This verse finally came alive to me once I realized what it meant. It wasn't a call to self-sacrifice (ie. "Crucify yourself!"). It wasn't a call to live a life of generic faith in God. It is first a teaching: "You can't live unto God until you are dead to the law." It is second a statement of fact: "You ARE crucified with Christ, and therefore it is not you who are alive anymore, but Christ who lives in you." That is a fact of identity before God, not an aspiration. By believing in Christ you have been united to Christ, and therefore His death was your death, and His life is your life. Your old identity is gone and your new identity has come. It is no longer about what you have done or do; it is only Christ and who He is and what He has done. You are perfected in Him.

And thirdly, it is an insight into the whole secret of the apostle Paul's life: "The life that I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me." Paul has just told us the secret of his life. He did not live a generic "life of faith". It was the OBJECT of his faith that gave him the impetus to live. He lived everyday believing that Jesus Christ loved Him and had given Himself for him. That's how he LIVED. That was enough. It was enough to send him on his missionary journeys, to endure hardships, to love the brethren, and to love God. His entire life was a response to the wonderful news of the love of God demonstrated in the death of Jesus Christ for sinners - even for him ("who loved ME").

Try it. You will see that grace will do what law cannot. May you put your total confidence in God's grace - not only for your salvation but also for your sanctification - and experience the freedom that only Jesus Christ brings.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Christology 101

In Mark chapter 8 verse 27, Jesus asked his disciples a question that would reverberate throughout time and around the world: “Who do men say that I am?” What is incredible about this question is that it has lost none of its relevancy - that today the question is just as important as when it was first uttered from the lips of Jesus. Perhaps the only thing that has changed about it is the amount of answers that we have accumulated throughout the course of two-thousand years. In the disciple’s day the number of options for answering was comparatively small: “Some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah. Still others say one of the prophets.” The Pharisees considered Jesus to be a demon-possessed blasphemer. At the time the question was posed, the whole Roman world outside of Israel never even knew about Jesus. Today most of the world has heard about Jesus and many conclusions have been made about him. You don’t hear too often the opinion that Jesus was John the Baptist, but we have our own set of bizarre opinions. “Jesus was a Buddha.” “Jesus was a highly morally evolved human being.” “Jesus was a prophet, like Mohammed.” “Jesus was a good teacher.” “Jesus was not the Messiah but God’s greatest test to see whether we as Jews would be faithful to the law or not.” “Jesus never existed.”

Of course, there is a profound follow up question to this first question. It is one thing to ask what others think about Jesus; answering the question can be done in a classroom. But Jesus next made the question intensely and inescapably personal: “But who do YOU say that I am?” Now it no longer matters what other people think. The question He poses He poses to you, and you must answer it. You cannot escape answering it. And if you need help answering it, there really are only three valid options: either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord that He claimed to be. You may ask, “Why can it only be these three choices?” Because only these three choices actually take seriously the historical facts about Jesus. If we say Jesus never existed we are ignoring the historical facts that testify to the truthfulness his life and death. If we say Jesus was just a good teacher, or a prophet like Mohammed, or a Buddha, or a highly morally evolved human being, we are ignoring the historical facts about what Jesus actually said concerning Himself, and we are creating and postulating a fictional Jesus. But if we take all the facts together, of his life and his teachings, we have but three options: He was liar, or He was a lunatic, or He was the Lord that He claimed to be. Surely any man that claims to be the Son of God, that claims the worship of the entire world, and that claims power over the grave for Himself and for every one who believes in Him, is either totally out of His mind, lying, or is in truth who He is claiming to be. We can safely dismiss all other options.

The apostle Paul was a man who at one time believed that Jesus was a false and wicked blasphemer, and he had devoted all his human energy to putting a stop to the worship of Jesus as the Son of God. He thought that the crucifixion of Jesus was exactly what Jesus had deserved, and that all those who believed in Jesus should likewise be punished. He was convinced that he was doing God’s will by wreaking havoc of the Church. It is this same man that wrote the passage that we have before us, Colossians 1:15-18, extolling Jesus as his God and his Lord and his entire reason for existence. Paul’s mind had changed about Jesus. And if you do not believe in Jesus, so can yours. No matter how firm your conviction may be against Jesus Christ as Lord, your mind can yet be changed. You may be like Paul, kicking against the goads, fighting a hopeless battle against God Himself, until the day comes when you cry out in defeat, “Who are you, Lord?”, no longer with an attitude of defiance and skepticism, but of surrender and submission to His Lordship. Paul learned who Jesus really was: far from being a blasphemer who deserved the cross, Paul realized that Jesus was His God, and that He had died on the cross not because He deserved it, but because Paul deserved it - that Christ had died on that cross for Paul’s salvation, for the forgiveness of Paul’s sins. What a love! Thus Paul’s life was changed forever, and he lived the rest of his life captivated by the love Christ had for him.

In Colossians 1:15-18, we have, not three options of determining who Jesus is, but three declarations of who Jesus is as the Lord of all.

1. JESUS IS THE REVELATION OF THE FATHER
2. JESUS IS THE SOURCE, SUSTAINER AND PURPOSE OF CREATION
3. JESUS IS THE HEAD OF THE CHURCH, THE NEW CREATION

These three things give us a complete picture of who the man Christ Jesus really is, that by seeing we may rest complete in Him. For an incomplete understanding of Jesus leads to an incomplete Christian who looks to other things besides Christ to make up for his supposed incompleteness, but a complete understanding of Christ leads to a complete Christian who seeks for nothing outside of Christ, because he has found all that he needs met fully in Him.


1. JESUS IS THE REVELATION OF THE FATHER
“Who is the image of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:15)

Now I want to draw our attention to a few passages in the Gospel of John, which Gospel truly sets forth this truth of Jesus the Son of God revealing the true nature of God. First, John 16:2-3, “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God a service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.” From this passage we can see that to Jesus it is not enough to simply believe in God, to be a theist. In fact, it is those who believe in God, who attend religious institutions for worship, who will think that they do God a service by putting you to death. We have seen this all throughout history and even today, that many horrible things are done in the “name” of God; and unfortunately this is used as an argument against Jesus and against Christianity and against religion altogether. But to reject Christ and God because of those who do not truly know God is to be greatly mistaken. Here, to Jesus, it is never enough simply to believe in God, or even to be monotheistic. It is never enough unless you know the Father. It is never enough unless you know, not merely that there is one God, but WHO that God is: His character, His Person, His nature. It is God the Father that Jesus Christ came to reveal to man. This was His mission.

Another passage in John, 14:7-10: “If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know Him, and have seen Him. Philip saith unto Him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast though not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, He doeth the works.” To see Jesus is to see the Father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. To believe in Jesus is to believe in the Father. Jesus is the revelation of the Father to men, “the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person” (Heb. 1:3), so that whatever you see Jesus doing you see that it is the Father’s doing it, and whenever you hear Jesus speaking you hear that it is the Father saying it. The work of Jesus was the Father’s. Jesus claimed to not do anything of Himself, but that everything He said and did was by the will of the Father. When we see Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, and saying, “Father, forgive them”, do we see Jesus trying to affect a change in the Father’s heart toward man, or do we see the revelation of the Father’s heart of love toward man? Do we see in the life and death of Jesus Christ the revelation of the One who loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life?

A final passage in the Gospel of John, John 1:17-18: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.” Here we have a marvelous statement of the utmost importance. Without Jesus, no one has a true understanding of who God really is. It is true that the law was given through Moses, and that the law revealed to us something true about God. God is just and holy and righteous, a God of wrath and of judgment, a God who requires absolute moral perfection in order to have fellowship with man because He is perfect. These things are all true about God. But understand, that to know these things is still not to know God. Yes, you know may many true things about Him, but you do not yet know Him, for without Jesus you do not know that which defines Him and makes Him who He is! It is like knowing a person’s physical features, and where they work, and how many siblings they have, and what kind of food they like, and countless other things, yet still not knowing who that person is, because you do not know the essence of that person - the thing about them that makes them who they are. And so to only know God as a God of justice is not false, but it is not truly knowing Him. To truly know God is to know Him through Jesus Christ; the God who is full of grace; the God who is seen in the bloody face of Jesus Christ, suffering and dying on the cross for lawbreakers, and extending forgiveness and mercy to those who do not deserve it because He loves them and has overcome the impossible at the cross. This is what it is to know God as He really is! To know God in Jesus Christ is to know the Father - not merely from a distance, but to know Him in His bosom.

And so Paul tells us in Colossians 1:12 to give thanks unto the Father, who has made us meet to be partakers of the saints in light by sending His Son to redeem us from our iniquities by His blood, forgiving us of all our sins, and translating us out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son whom He loves. It is Father who is to be thanked and praised when we behold in Jesus the image, the tangible manifestation, of the invisible God.


2. JESUS IS THE SOURCE, SUSTAINER AND PURPOSE OF CREATION
"For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in the earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him, and for Him. And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist.” (1:16-17)

The second declaration about Jesus the Lord in Colossians 1:15-18 is that He is the source, sustainer and purpose of all creation. The Scripture does not say that Jesus was Himself created, as some have erroneously imagined from the expression in verse 15, that He is “the firstborn of all creation”. For this notion is immediately refuted by the following verse: “For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in the earth, visible and invisible… all things were created by Him.” (1:16) That Christ created all things that were created is repeated twice for emphasis. If ALL things were created BY Him, then He Himself cannot have been created. If one argues that “all things” might refer to the material universe only, the apostle states that “all things” includes everything whatsoever that is in heaven and on earth, including powers and principalities and authorities and dominions. All things were created by Him. Moreover, if Jesus were Himself created, then He therefore would not be God, because God is not created. Therefore, because we known Jesus is God, we know that He was not created.

What then does it mean that He is the “firstborn of all creation”? “It signifies his dominion over all things, as the first-born in a family is heir and lord of all, so he is the heir of all things.” (Matthew Henry) That is, that Jesus has the predominance over all creation, just as a firstborn son has the predominance of status, position, blessings, rights and privileges. Christ is likened to a firstborn. The firstborn was the heir. Christ is said to be the heir of all things (Heb. 1:2). The expression itself is a Jewish one, as the Jews themselves used to call Jehovah their God the “firstborn of all creation”, not because they believed God was Himself created, but because He was superior to all things. It is this same sense which we find in Psalm 89:27, speaking of Christ: “I will make Him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.”

Jesus was not created, but God the Father created all things by Him. This was no mere man! He was the source of all creation. He is also the sustainer of all creation. “And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist.” (1:17) Literally, “By Him all things are held together.” What an amazing thought! Christ’s relation to creation is not merely something of the past, but of the very present (with also a glorious future). Everything that exists is presently held together by Jesus Christ. Herbert M. Carson writes, “Indeed Christ is not only the agent of creation, but of perseveration. The philosopher may seek for a principle of coherence, a unity amid the diversity of the world of sense; but in the Son the believer finds the true principle of coherence. It is His power alone which holds creation together.” Many philosophers have committed suicide on account of their Christless search for coherence and meaning in the universe which their Christless philosophies cannot produce. They who mock the Savior mock the very One who holds their atoms together. It is in Jesus Christ alone that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid (Col. 2:3), and happy is the man who possesses them.

Now all this is said to show two things: First, to show to those who think that we must worship angels because of the assumed notion that they are the source and sustainers of the world (Col. 2:18) that Jesus Christ is preeminent above even the angels, and that He alone is the source and sustainer of the world. What is more, He is the creator of the angels themselves, and by Him are they even being preserved! Christ is sufficient for all our worship, because He is God, and to Him all worship belongs.

Secondly, to show that God’s purpose in creating all things and in sustaining all things is Jesus Christ. “By Him were all things created, and FOR Him.” (1:16) That is, the reason why “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” was because God desired to reveal Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ through His life, death, resurrection and exaltation. The revelation of the Father in Jesus is the reason for creation’s past, creation’s present, and creation’s future. It all exists for the glory of God - the glory that is manifested through the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).


3. JESUS IS THE HEAD OF THE CHURCH, THE NEW CREATION
“And He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things He might have the preeminence.” (Col. 1:18)

The final declaration about Jesus in this passage is that He is the head of the Church, the firstborn from the dead. The emphatic point is that HE and HE ALONE is the head of the Church, and that nothing more, and no one more, is needed to provide life and meaning to the body. It is interesting to note that in the Roman Catholic tradition, it is believed that the Church would be without a head if there were no human pope (whom they also call “the head of the church”). They explain this by saying that though Christ is properly called the head of the church, yet without the pope (whom they call the “ministerial head”) Christ role would be impotent, for the pope must act and function as his substitute! This is the very notion Paul is refuting. Christ is not only the Church’s proper head, but He is its living, functioning, all-sufficient head (see Col. 2:19). Because He is the head, we need no one else besides Him for our spiritual unity, nourishment, protection, direction, resource, and strength.

There is also here the idea of the new creation. Just as Jesus Christ is the source, sustainer and purpose of all created things in heaven and earth, so is He the source, sustainer and purpose of the new creation. He is called the firstborn of all creation; He is also here called the firstborn from the dead. Because Jesus rose from the dead, all those who belong to Him will rise from the dead too! Thus the Church can be described as made up of all those who will rise from the dead unto incorruptible newness. This resurrected body makes up the new creation of which Christ is Lord. In this way God’s intention is fulfilled that Jesus Christ would be preeminent in all things: in creation, in heaven, in earth, and in the Church, the new creation. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the brightness of His glory and the express image of His Person. It is the revelation of the Father that shines forth in Christ, and this revelation is the crowning head of the Church. The Church is constituted by a people who know the Father, for they have Jesus as their head, and the Church exists for the sole purpose of glorifying God and making Him known. If you don’t know God the Father through Jesus Christ, but have a mere belief in God, or a mere belief in Jesus that does not hail Him as the Son of God, then you have no part in the Church; but if you have known the Father through Jesus Christ, and truly believe who Jesus is, then you are a part of the Church, the new creation, and will live forever proclaiming His glory and the wonders of His love!

Who do you say Jesus is?

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Catholics and Protestants: Can There Be Unity? (Part 3)

Hi H-----,

Sorry for the delayed response. I wanted to read through both of those articles you sent me from the Catholic Encyclopedia and then offer my comments. I'm glad you and Mike were able to talk about these things.

I'm confused about the double message I'm hearing. On the one hand you yourself are saying (as was Kreeft) that the whole Protestant/Catholic controversy is based on a misunderstanding, and that we actually believe pretty much the same thing. On the other hand, the two articles (1, 2) you gave me, which draw heavily upon the Council of Trent, denounce what I believe as heresy, and they do so quite unequivocally, in no ambiguous terms. Everything that I read in those articles makes it clear that I do not believe in the Catholic doctrine of justification, and that Catholics do not believe in the Protestant doctrine of justification. We are dealing with two totally different understandings, and I cannot see how they can be reconciled.

Now for some thoughts on what has been said:

You wrote, "Mortal sin indicates that the movement of faith has passed away." Yet notice what the Council actually said:

"In opposition also to the subtle wits of certain men, who, by pleasing speeches and good words, seduce the hearts of the innocent, it is to be maintained, that
the received grace of Justification is lost, not only by infidelity whereby even faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin whatever, though faith be not lost." (Chapter XV)"

Even if the person
has faith, and yet sins, they have lost justification. I cannot accept this tenet as Biblical, for Scripture plainly declares, "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." (Rom. 3:23-24, 27-28) Justification is bestowed freely upon the sinner who falls short of the glory of God, and it is bestowed through faith apart from any works whatsoever. Nor is Paul referring to a mere "Jewish Law" or to "pagan good works" but to all moral law whatsoever as is evident from the context. An abundance more Scripture can be cited that simply does not agree with Trent.

I am not trying to be combative. From what I read in those articles, the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is convoluted and lacks the savor and freeing power of the plain Biblical gospel message. It did not feel like I was reading the apostles; it felt like I was reading Roman Catholic apologists, complete with their own literary aura and Latin fetish. Protestant writings possess the savor of the Jesus I know from the Bible, the realistic and life-giving power of the gospel message. The gospel proclaims forgiveness for the sinful, not on account of their becoming not-sinful first, nor on account of a coinciding not-sinful renovation, but that the forgiveness from God pours down abundantly upon the heads of the wicked and the filthy through unmerited favor. If we are only assured that we are forgiven after we stop sinning then there will never be the assurance of sins forgiven (as the Catholic doctrine so forcefully conceded!). What sort of good news is that? It is not the good news I am familiar with in the Bible, where such powerfully freeing verses as these are found:

"Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins." (Colossians 1:12-14)

"And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses." (Colossians 2:13)

"Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Happy are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Happy is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin." (Romans 4:6-8)

These are glorious statements of assurance which makes happy the believer. Far from forgiveness being a thing that is "uncertain", the entire force of the gospel is that it brings to sinners hope, joy and peace in believing, that
thereby they may produce good fruits. As I have said before, it is not works that bring assurance, but it is assurance that brings works, and assurance can only come when we cease looking to our own works and righteousness for assurance but look only to the righteousness that is accounted to us by faith in Jesus Christ because of His atoning sacrifice.

Justification
is a forensic thing. It is something that is accounted to us in the heavenly books. When the Scripture talks about sins being "blotted out" it does not mean from our behavior but from the books in heaven, where God keeps a record of all men's deeds (Job 10:14, Rev. 20:12). If it were not so, who then is justified? Who can say their sins have been blotted out from their behavior? If one's own personal righteousness is the measure of one's justification before God, then who can stand? This is why the belief in purgatory is a necessity for Roman Catholics, and what a sad dis-annulling of the atonement of Christ it is. If you yourself must pay for your own sins, what is the point of the One who paid for our sins on the cross?

"If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared." (Psalm 130:3-4) Indeed, God does not count our sins against us, but forgives us. If He did count our sins against us none would stand. Forgiveness does not mean that if God were to judge us we would be found actually sinless. Forgiveness means that though we can not stand before God, He has not counted our sins against us. This is the glorious truth of the cross of Christ: "To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21) Christ, who was actually not sinful, was treated as a sinner for me on the cross (became sin for us), so that I, who am actually not righteous, can be treated as righteous by faith in Him (made the righteousness of God in Him). This is the mystery of the gospel. We were each treated in the way we did not deserve.

Rather than opening the doors for sin and reckless behavior in the believers, this doctrine of justification by faith actually is the only thing that has the power to put a stop to sinning. This is the entire argument of Paul in Romans 6, 7, and 8 when he is confronted with that most common of all objections: "If this doctrine be true, will we not continue in sin that grace may abound?" Paul's answer is heavenly and mysterious:
"Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14) It is precisely because we are not under obligations to keep the commandments that sin shall not have dominion over us, for it isthe law itself that causes us to sin (Rom. 7:5), and grace alone severs that root and arouses in us a life of thankfulness and holiness. This teaching of Paul on sanctification by grace is so profound it is probably even more misunderstood than his teaching on justification by grace, which itself is incredibly profound. They are profound because they grind against our natural religious intuitions and have their source in the cross, which is of God and not of man, whose thoughts are higher than the earth. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are myways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:9) God brings the wisdom of man to nothing (1 Cor. 1-2).

As for Luther and how the Catholic Encyclopedia says that he originated the doctrine of justification by faith because of his fearfully convicted conscience, I only have two things to say. One, the doctrine of justification by faith never originated with Luther but, as the article itself testifies, many "heretics" before him had believed it (most of which were persecuted) simply because that is what the Bible itself teaches. As one theologian well-noted: "Protestantism as it emerged in the 16th century was not the beginning of something new, but a return to Bible Christianity and to the simplicity of the Apostolic church from which the Roman church had long since departed." Second, if Luther found peace of conscience through the gospel of grace,
that is precisely the point of the gospel! It brings peace of conscience to those who are burdened down by the weight of guilt. One in-obscured look to the crucified Savior and at once the sinner is relieved, just like the Israelites who looked to the bronze snake in the wilderness. That's the whole point. Perhaps this is something self-righteous people who think they are good will never understand. If we saw our sins as Luther saw them, as we should see them, we too would rejoice in the gospel of justification by faith. Luther discovered the truth about the gospel and couldn't help but share it with others. And he was not the only one.

In the 16th century and up to today the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith has set millions of souls free from guilt and set them off worshipping Jehovah with ardent desire. Far from producing slothfulness in holiness, men and women who have known the grace of God in truth (not merely who have been catechized) are witnesses of the freedom from guilt Jesus Christ's blood brings and the transformation of life that accompanies such a faith. It is no small sect that broke off from the Roman Catholic Church, but a movement that continues to grow and bear fruit, though it be not institutionalized. That's because the power is in the good
news, not the institution.

Take care, H-----.
-Eli