Shifting Sand

I’m reading about the Southern Baptist Convention and their International Mission Board’s involvement in supporting the construction of a mosque in New Jersey.  Do we, as Christians, allow other people to choose their religious preferences?  Yes, because we are no greater than God, Who allows all men free will to choose their devotions.  Do we, as Christians, encourage or promote other religions that deny that Jesus is the Son of God, Lord of all creation, and the only Name given by which men may be saved?  No, because to do so is to go against the very faith we claim to hold in Christ and His Gospel of Salvation.  To encourage anyone’s denial of Christ is to be complicit in such a denial (Matt 10:32-34; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26).  A saving belief in Christ is faith in Him as Lord, and a genuine faith in Him as Lord compels us to share that truth with anyone who will listen.

Jesus Christ is the Son of YHWH God and He is also YHWH God in the flesh.  Jesus is fully God and fully man, He was crucified as the propitiation for the sins of mankind, He died and rose again, conquering sin and death once and for all, and He is the only way to salvation.  Any religion that denies these eternal facts cannot be supported or encouraged by Christians who are commanded to “Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature, He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not, shall be condemned.” (Mark 16:15,16) and “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19,20).

I will never forget when, in my mid-twenties, I came face-to-face with the reality of the exclusivity of the path to eternal salvation in Christ.  Although, throughout my college years I would readily acknowledge my Christian faith, I fell into the same seductive humanistic mindset that so many lukewarm Christians fall into during their most formative years.  My relationship with Christ was shaped by the ideas, customs, and social behavior of society, rather than scripture.  My Christian faith was based on humanism and subjective personal experience, rather than Who God has revealed Himself to be in scripture.  Because my faith was based on subjective experience and cultural influence, I had built my house on shifting sand:  “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…But everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Matt 7:24,26).

The trendy cultural “inclusivity” that was hammered into me during my late teens and early twenties, crashed head-on into the exclusivity of Jesus’ claim that, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6).  It was one of the many forks-in-the-road I have encountered in my walk of faith, times when I reached certain milestones in which I could choose my own reasoning, over the truth of God’s word and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  At that time, my personal experience and reasoning posited that God transcended all religion, including Christianity, and could not be defined by any one religious structure, but rather, it was our myriad of religious structures and experiences that altogether led to the one, true God.  The humanism and cultural inclusivity that was so seductively appealing to my intellect, dictated that God is all-loving and all-merciful, therefore surely, He will not turn away anyone who seeks Him, no matter what path they’re on. Besides, I reasoned, we have His assurance: “Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.” (Matt 7:7).  A brilliant intellectualization of my subjective spiritual experience, if I do say so myself.  But it’s total garbage.  It may be a convincing argument for those who know just enough scripture to recognize it as scripture, but not enough to be transformed by it.

Lest we forget, Satan manipulated God’s words to deceive Eve.  A few verses down from “Knock, and the door shall be opened…” at Matthew 7:7, Jesus also says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (v. 13,14).  At John 10:9, Jesus plainly tells us that He is the gate.  And yes, scripture says that if we knock, the door shall be opened, but Jesus plainly tells us that He is the One standing on the other side of it (Rev 3:20).

It grieves me to see so many who are well-intended toward the Christian faith, fall into the trap of vanity by consuming the bait of over-intellectualizing their spirituality, as Paul warns:  “I am afraid, however, that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may be led astray from your simple and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims a Jesus other than the One we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit than the One you received, or a different gospel than the one you accepted, you put up with it way too easily.” (2 Cor 11:3,4).

Which is not to say that we are to neglect our intellectual reasoning, but rather, we are to have it fully submitted to Christ, “We tear down arguments, and every presumption set up against the knowledge of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5).  We subject our intellect to obedience in Christ because Satan appeals to our intellect and reasoning, and without the authority of Christ over our mind, we do not stand a chance against our eternal enemy.  Satan seeks to entice and deceive us through our intellect and reasoning, while God seeks to set us free through our childlike faith and surrender.  So many have condemned Eve for her disastrous choice in the Garden to pursue her own reasoning, over her faithful trust in God, all the while not realizing that we make the same choice over and over in our own lives.

True brilliance is the humility to admit that we are but dust and true wisdom is the meek surrender to God’s revelation to us through scripture.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5)

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Prov 9:10)

“And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; And to depart from evil is understanding.'” (Job 28:28)

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments; His praise endures forever.” (Psalm 111:10)

“But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” (Eccl 12:12-14)

“Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and does them, I will show you what he is like:  he is like a man building a house who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built.” (Luke 6:47,48)

Hungry

The other day I took my five-year-old daughter to have a cavity filled at an early morning dentist appointment. As we walked out of the dentist office after the procedure, she looked up at me, still a little loopy from the oral sedation she had to take for the procedure, and said, “I’m hongwy Mama, feed me.” She said this because she was “hongwy”. She also said it because she’s five and she can’t feed herself. She also said it because I am her mother and it is my job to feed her when she is “hongwy”. That’s the way it works.

That is also the way our relationship with God works. We should come to God in prayer, looking for Him so we can tell Him, “Abba, I am hungry. Feed me.” We cannot feed ourselves the spiritual food that we need from God, because He is the only One Who has it. We ask God to feed us because He is our Father, and it is His job to feed us when we come to Him and tell Him we are hungry. And just like my compassionate reaction to my own daughter’s pleas to be fed, He reacts to our pleas with infinite compassion. I long to fill my daughter’s hunger, it is something that gives me great fulfillment and peace, knowing that she is fed and taken care of. God longs to fill our hunger, that is why Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never hunger, and whoever believes in Me will never thirst.” (John 6:35).

Something I increasingly observe is that we are not hungry for God because we are too easily filled by the things of the world. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” We are far too easily satisfied with the vacuous and temporal fulfillment of our flesh. Our bellies are so full of worldliness, that we are content to nibble upon spiritual scraps, even though God has provided access to a limitless buffet of holiness, wisdom and peace.

When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God gave them an abundance of manna each day, far more than they could ever consume. But God told them to only collect what they needed for each day, “Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.” (Exodus 16:21). Jesus reiterates this daily dependence on God when He teaches the Apostles to pray, “Give us each day, our daily bread.” (Luke 11:3).

God tells us that we need “daily bread”, but some of us are just getting weekly bread when we make our obligatory church appearance on Sunday. We show up at church, empty and hungry, trying to get filled on an hour of corporate worship and then stretch that hour of bread to try and make it last through the week. When the Israelites tried to do that, their manna rotted and was inedible, “Moses told them, ‘Do not keep any of it until morning.’ But some of them didn’t listen and kept some of it until morning. But by then it was full of maggots and had a terrible smell.” (Exodus 16:19,20). We cannot grow spiritually on maggoty, rotten bread, but many of us are trying to.

Instead of being hungry for God, many find themselves frustrated and cranky.  I have heard people refer to this hungry/angry condition as “hangry”. How many of us are “hangry” about our spiritual growth? There are three types of Christians: hungry, hangry, and those who are so used to going without any food at all, that any hunger pangs they may have once suffered are long-since gone and they exist in spiritual numbness.

Are you spiritually numb? Are you ambivalent about God’s presence and His call upon us to be well-equipped in His word (Heb 13:20,21; 2 Tim 3:16,17) and to pursue holiness (Lev 20:26; Lev 19:2; 1 Peter 1:14-16)? Then ask God to give you a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:25-27; Ezek 11:19,20) and to quicken your spirit (Rom 8:10-13).

Are you hangry? Are you frustrated in your walk with God? Are you trying to fill a belly that is full of the world with maggoty, rotten bread? Then ask God to examine your heart and show you the changes that need to be made in your habits and life (Psalm 139:23,24; Psalm 19:12; Job 31:6), and then surrender, in daily faith, to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Ask Him to teach you and to give you ears to hear and a heart of obedience (Psalm 143:10; Psalm 16:11; Psalm 25:4,5; Psalm 86:10-12).

Are you hungry? Do you find yourself wondering if there is more to be had than the religion you are being offered, when your true heart’s desire is for more relationship? Then meditate on Jesus’ promise to be your daily bread as you seek His presence and fellowship through daily prayer and regular Bible study (Luke 17:19; Matt 9:22; Luke 7:20). Pray for Him to put you into fellowship with other hungry brothers and sisters. Believe that when you come to Him and look up and say, “Abba, I am hungry. Feed me” that He will be faithful and compassionate to provide far more than you could ever hope to consume (Philippians 4:19; 2 Cor 9:8; Eph 3:8).

“Jesus answered them and said, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.’…So they said to Him, ‘Then what sign do You do, that we may see and believe You? What work do You perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”‘ Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He Who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ Then they said to Him, ‘Lord, always give us this bread.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst.'” (John 6:26-35)

“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Yoke And Burden

“Come to Me, all those toiling and being burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

I want to point out something about this passage that God brought to my attention the other day. Quite often, I find myself whining to God about various things. The other day, during one of my marathon whining sessions, I told God, “You said Your yoke would be easy and the burden would be light.” I knew better than to say such a thing, which is why I was quickly reminded of the original context of His statement, which was intended as a reproach upon the system of works that the Pharisees laid upon the backs of those who sought God. That is what Jesus is speaking about when He says later on in Matthew, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:4).

Jesus’ life and ministry was at the crossroads of the Old and New Covenant. Two thousand years of Old Covenant Israel was about to collide head-on with two thousand years of New Covenant Christendom. Therefore, when He said that His yoke would be easy and burden light, there were dual implications to what He was saying. He spoke not only to those under the Old Covenant of Mosaic Law, but also to those who would be under the New Covenant of His Lordship and grace.

The thing that God brought to my attention, was that although Jesus promised “I will give you rest”, He never said that He would remove our yoke and take away our burdens. Jesus was bringing about a new paradigm for men to relate to God, He was abolishing the Old Covenant and replacing it with a New. Therefore He could have easily said “Come to Me, all those toiling and being burdened, and I will give you rest. I will remove your yoke and your burdens and you will find rest for your souls.” But He didn’t say that, He said that we were to stay under a yoke and continue to carry a burden. However, He replaced the old yoke with a new one.

When Jesus said, “I will give you rest”, He was speaking one thing to Israel and another thing to the Gentile nations who would be part of the New Covenant. For Israel, He was giving them rest from Mosaic Law. But the Gentile nations were not under Mosaic Law, so what would He be giving them rest from? He would be giving them rest from their sin (Jeremiah 31:34; Rom 6:2,6,7,14). For those under the Old Covenant, their yoke was the Law. For those under the New Covenant, their yoke would be faith (Gal 5:6; John 6:28,29; Rom 4:5; 1 John 3:23). For those under both Covenants, the burden was, is, and has always been, obedience.

We are “yoked” to Christ in faith and the “burden” (or responsibility) of that faith, is obedience (Matt 10:38; John 10:27; John 12:26; John 14:15,21,23; John 15:10; Heb 5:8,9; 1 John 2:3-6; 1 John 5:2,3; Rev 12:17; Rev 14:12, 13). Jesus said, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matt 16:24)

“…come after me” = yoke of faith

“…deny himself and take up his cross” = burden of obedience

What many in the church today fail to realize, is that our faith means nothing if it is not paired with obedience. By Jesus’ own instructions, our faith in Him must be validated by our obedience. James tells us, “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough.  Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless…O foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is worthless? Was not our father Abraham justified by what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith was working with his actions, and his faith was perfected by what he did.” (James 2:17-22). A faith that is not evidenced by obedience, is not faith. It is simply a belief based on affirmation, rather than a belief of trustful surrender.  Obedience to Christ in a person’s life, is evidence of their faithful surrender to Him as Lord. Our faith in Christ must be a faith in Who He is, and Christ can only and ever be Lord. To believe in Jesus and be saved (John 3:36; John 5:24; John 6:47), we must believe that He is Lord (Rom 10:8,9), and in so doing, the only proper reaction to such a belief is surrender.

We are not saved by good deeds, we are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:8).   However, genuine faith and genuine salvation are evidenced by our actions of obedience.  Jesus tells us, “If anyone would come after Me…”  How do we come after, or pursue Christ?  By faith.  But then what does Christ tell us to do with that faith?  “…deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”  That’s an action of obedience.

The reason Jesus didn’t remove our yoke and take away our burdens, is because it is the yoke of faith that saves us. And as long as we are on this side of heaven, our faith will at many times seem like a burden. Jesus said that in this world we would have trouble, I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33). Paul and Barnabas told those in the early church, We must endure many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22), as they strengthened the souls of those early believers by encouraging them to continue in the faith (Acts 14:21). Our salvation in Christ truly gives us “rest for your souls“, but that doesn’t mean that we will be completely without burden. Today, should you feel the weight and burden of your yoke of faith, spend some time sitting at the feet of Christ, Who gently reminds us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).

 

“My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father who has given them to Me is greater than all. No one can snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30)

“And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.” (Isaiah 58:11)

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy, He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, reserved in heaven for you, who through faith are protected by God’s power for the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:3-7)

How Big Is Your God?

Throughout life, you will likely find yourself in situations in which you are asked to compromise. Compromise, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, in ministry, we cannot be so stubborn as to not be willing to work with others and find solutions that are conciliatory to keeping peace in a congregation of believers. In ministry, an unwillingness to compromise can never be based on pride (Prov 11:12), hardness of heart (Zech 7:11,12), arrogance (Prov 18:12), or haughtiness (Prov 16:18). In many cases, compromise can be a very good thing. At Ephesians Chapter 4, Paul instructs us to walk worthy of the calling we have received, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, and with diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:2,3). Therefore, according to the intent and purpose of preserving unity through the bond of peace, God calls us to be willing to make certain necessary compromises.

What God will never call us to do however, is to be willing to compromise His word. God will never call us to neuter the convicting, soul-stirring effect of the truth of His word. Should you ever find yourself in a situation in which you are asked to compromise your wording because the term for what you are preaching is controversial, you would do well to remember that is exactly what Jesus experienced. In many ways, over the course of the last 2000 years, the religious establishment hasn’t changed much. Jesus’ teaching was doctrinally sound, but what He was preaching was very controversial to the accepted religious establishment of His day. In fact, Jesus was so controversial, that they crucified Him for it. If what you are preaching is doctrinally sound, then there is no reason to compromise your wording. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, “O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.”

We tend towards manufacturing our churches to seem as inviting as possible, whether that means a never-ending building fund or the expense of compromising our message for the sake of appeal. We want to make sure that we make no offensive posturing, that we exude no potential controversy, lest we ward off any potential visitor, and we want a service that is as streamlined and predictable as possible. We want to be seeker-sensitive, and the more sensitive we are to their sensitivities, the greater the chance we’ll have at drawing them in.

We tend to be drawn more towards catering to the crowd, rather than catering to God, Who is the only One Who draws men. But we have this whole notion that it is us– our ideas, our abilities, our foresight, our manufactured appeal, our streamlined application of the church program– who draws people to Christ. We’ve built a whole generation of churches based on the notion of “entrepreneurship”– good public relations insight, risk vs. reward, productive business models, congregational development strategies, rousing worship, emotionally engaging messages– all of which, being the driving force behind our notion of a “successful” ministry. In so doing, we have robbed the Holy Spirit of His work.  Sure, we are willing to acknowledge when God has “blessed our ministry”, we thank God for blessing “our efforts”, but who is really receiving the glory here?  What would happen if God stripped a church of everything, back down to the foundations of Spirit and Grace, where all the work that was done by that church, in that church and through that church could only be attributed to God and God alone?  Most churches today have lost such a sense of total abandonment towards God, which is why most churches today have been abandoned by the miracle-working presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

We follow a castrated version of Christianity.  No longer should we practice an empty religion in a church whose congregation has been built on the backs of their own effort.  It is far better to be in a congregation of a few fellow believers who have a whole-heart commitment to God, who are utterly dependent upon God at every turn, who have counted the cost to follow Christ and are willing to forsake this world and everything in it, and who have been supernaturally led together as a congregation by the Holy Spirit to truly walk-out what it means to be the Body of Christ– for better or for worse. We have to break free from the notion that it is we who determine what church we go to, and come to the realization that a church that is truly full of the Holy Spirit, is one which God has arranged by divine providence. The problem with the church today, is that we have lost faith in a God that big.

A.W. Tozer sums up this problem as such:
“Right now, we are in an age of religious complexity. The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us. In its stead, are programs, methods, organizations, and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention, but can never satisfy the longings of the heart. The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship, and that servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods, all testify that we, in this day, know God only imperfectly, and the peace of God scarcely at all.”

Scripture is very clear as to Who draws people to God: “No one can come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets: ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from Him comes to Me.” (John 6:44,45). It is God Who prepares the soil of a person’s heart and mind to receive the truth of His message. God speaks, and we hear, learn and follow. God draws, we surrender. And we surrender because God gives us the ability to do so. This is God’s business model. Which means, if it is God Who is drawing someone to salvation and/or church fellowship, then there is nothing that will keep them from it. Not even a controversy worth being crucified for.

“My message and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith would not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. Among the mature, however, we speak a message of wisdom–but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.” (1 Cor 2:4-6).

Words Of Eternal Life

In my last blog post, I mentioned that a friend sent me a message on Facebook asking me about my thoughts in regard to a portion of a recent interview between Timothy Keller and a self-proclaimed doubting Christian, Nicholas Kristof, entitled, “Am I A Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?”  At which point, I then went off on a tangent that turned into an entirely new blog post than the one I originally intended.  My original intent was to share my response to the portion of the interview of which my friend asked for my thoughts.  The portion of the interview of which my friend asked my thoughts, was written about in a commentary article, based on the original interview referenced and linked above, which accuses Keller of making Jesus’ teachings “ethical teachings” of secondary importance to belief in His death and resurrection.

My response to the article and my friend’s question, “Do you think there is a difference or order of importance between the resurrection and Jesus’ teachings?” is as follows:

Jesus’ death and the reception and application of His teachings are mutually inclusive. Without His death, the reception and application of His teachings would never have brought us eternal life. By the same token, without His teachings, His death would have only opened the door to eternal life because it is our faith in, and the application of, His teachings which lead us through it unto eternal life.

Jesus said, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words I speak to you are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63). When Jesus was being examined under Pilate and Pilate asked Him if He was a king, Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king….For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.” (John 18:37). Jesus said His words are “spirit and life” and that the reason He came into the world was to “testify to the truth.” We must receive those words by faith and surrender to their application to our lives, to have eternal life. Jesus said that we must remain in Him to have eternal life, and to remain in Him, we must apply His words to our life in obedience (John 14:15,21,23; John 15:5-7,10; 1 John 2:3; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 1:6). Which is not to say that we are saved by our own works, but we are saved by our faith in, and submission to, what Christ accomplished. Salvation is by grace, but the onus of daily surrender to that grace to be worked out in our lives, falls upon us.  And it is His Spirit working within us, that compels us to such a surrender.

Having said that, we would not have the possibility of eternal life unless Christ succeeded in His sacrificial death. Jesus also said the reason He came was, “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:28). Thus, He came to “testify to the truth” with His words that are “spirit and life” for the purpose of “giving His life as a ransom for many.” His words profit us nothing, lest they are accompanied by His death which opens the door to their eternal life-giving power. Jesus’ death canceled out the power of death and sin over every human being that would receive His words and apply them to their life. He holds the keys to death and hell, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last, the Living One. I was dead, and behold, now I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of Death and of Hades.” (Rev 1:18). And because of that victorious death, everything in existence has been subjected to His authority, “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.'” (Matt 28:18).

Therefore, I believe that is the thrust of Keller’s argument, which is to say, that although Jesus’ teachings and His death are mutually inclusive and equally important, His death and resurrection trumps everything because without it, His teachings would be just that: ethical teachings that would simply be good works in a person’s life. It is only because of the death and resurrection of Christ, that His words transform our spirit and lead us to eternal life, “So Jesus asked the Twelve, ‘Do you want to leave too?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘Lord, to Whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.'” (John 6:67,68).

“If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:6,7)

“So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples.'” (John 8:31)

“Anyone who runs ahead without remaining in the teaching of Christ does not have God. Whoever remains in His teaching has both the Father and the Son.” (2 John 1:9)

“As for you, let what you have heard from the beginning remain in you. If it does, you will also remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that He Himself made to us: eternal life.” (1 John 2:24,25)

“Jesus replied, ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make Our home with him.'” (John 14:23)

Whoever keeps His commandments remains in God, and God in him. And by this we know that He remains in us: by the Spirit He has given us.” (1 John 3:24)

Am I A Christian?

A friend sent me a message on Facebook the other day, asking me about my thoughts in regard to a portion of a recent interview between Timothy Keller and a self-proclaimed doubting Christian, Nicholas Kristof, entitled, “Am I A Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?”  The gist of Kristof’s argument was, is it necessary for a Christian to believe the basic tenets of the Christian faith to be a Christian?  That this is deemed a valid question, seems absurd to me.  However, as absurd of a question as this may sound on the surface, I can see the value in its debate, especially in our current age of “cafeteria style” Christianity.

Questioning whether or not you have to believe the basic tenets of Christianity to be a Christian, is truly absurd, but questioning just exactly what makes a person a Christian, is a concept I feel worthy of debate.  At what point do we cross the Rubicon of eternal salvation in Christ?  Where, exactly, is the delineation on the event horizon between eternal damnation and eternal salvation?  Not only do I find these questions worthy of our consideration, but I also find them necessary at this point in Christendom.  A point, it seems, where anything goes as long as you have an intellectual awareness of Christ and repeated a prayer, or as long as you’ve been baptized and go to church, or as long as you’ve done one or the other, or all.   A point at which current evangelism says that as long as you do “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”, you are forever-locked into the kingdom of God.  A point at which people are told that simple acknowledgment of Christ is enough to inherit eternal life.

When I study scripture, I marvel that Jesus seemed to deftly avoid the “grocery list” of necessary tasks people sought from Him to define the path of eternal life.  Every time someone asked Jesus what they must do, He seemed to give a different answer:

– We must be born again (John 3:3-6)

– We must be converted (Matt 18:3)

– We must be obedient (Matt 7:21)

– We must not commit adultery, murder, or theft; we must not lie and we must honor our parents (Luke 18:21)

– We must forsake our possessions and follow Him (Luke 18:22)

– We must hate our life in this world (John 12:25)

– We must serve and follow Him (John 12:26)

– We must believe in Him (John 7:38)

– We must keep His word (John 8:51)

– We must drink the Living Water of Christ (John 4:14)

– We must live in Him (John 11:26)

He did this because the only way to eternal life is through a personal relationship with Him, which must be sought with our whole heart, rather than works of our own effort checked off like items on a grocery list.  It is not that scripture is in error when it says that we must only believe in Christ to be saved, but rather, it is our understanding of what it means to believe.  When scripture tells us that we must believe in Christ, the implications of such a belief is to acknowledge Him as Lord.  And the only proper response a human being can have when they acknowledge Christ as Lord, is to surrender to His Lordship.

Jesus said, “For it is My Father’s will that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40).  Yet we are told by James, “You believe that God is one. Good for you! Even the demons believe that, and shudder!” (James 2:19).  The demons believe in God and shudder, yet they are not saved.  And yes, I am aware that Christ died to save men and not demons, but I feel it is worthy to note what is being articulated here by the dual use of the word “belief”.  The Greek word translated in the New Testament as “belief” is the word “PISTEUO”.  It is the context of the use of this word that determines its meaning, whether a belief of simple intellectual acknowledgment or a belief that leads to submissive faith.  A belief of simple affirmation versus a belief of trustful surrender.  James differentiates a belief based on simple affirmation from a belief that leads to trustful surrender when he goes on to say, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:20).  Not only is James referring to a faith that results in bearing fruit for God’s kingdom, but also a saving faith in Christ that is willing to conform to His authority and will, rather than a faith that is defined by simple intellectual acknowledgement of a certain list of beliefs.

Is it necessary for a person to believe in the basic tenets of Christianity to be a Christian?  Absolutely.  The definition of any religious movement is a belief in a certain set of fundamental tenets.  If you do not believe in the set of tenets that define that religious movement, then find another faith that is more appealing to your intellect and personal motives.  Does belief in the basic tenets of Christianity make a person a Christian?  Absolutely not.  Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father 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; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matt 7:21-23).  Salvation is by faith alone, in Christ alone, but our faith must be one of surrender, rather than one of simple acknowledgement.

At what exact point in our belief do we cross over the Rubicon into God’s kingdom?  What is the defining moment of transcendence from eternal spiritual death, to eternal spiritual life in Christ?  Despite the squawking pontifications of many theologians today and the formulaic “Roman Road” to salvation used by contemporary evangelism, that is truly a question that only God can answer to any degree of absolute certainty.  Because it is only God Who can see a man’s heart, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7).  But what I can tell you with absolute certainty, is that there is no salvation without surrender.

“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” (John 6:37)

Silver And Gold

As I read Proverbs Chapter 17 during my devotional time, God drew my attention to verse 3 which says, “The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, But the LORD tests hearts.”

One of the many problems with what we call the church today, is that most of us never make it through the refiner’s pot.  Many never even make it to the pot itself.  Our Americanized version of Christianity implies that our relationship with Jesus should be at our convenience, completely unburdened by any personal sacrifice on our part because we are saved by grace, no strings attached.  But that is not what Jesus taught.  Jesus said that being His disciple would come at great personal cost to us.  That we must be willing to forsake all to follow Him:  our family, our children, our plans, our culture, and even ourselves, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26).  He said the crucifixion of our self would be required to follow Him and be His disciple, “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27).

You see, when Jesus spoke to first century hearers of “carrying your cross”, what they heard was “you must carry an instrument of your own death….daily.”  This would not have been an attractive component of what Jesus’ teachings were calling them to do.  What Jesus was basically telling them was, “Follow Me to your own death, and I will give you new life, but that new life will cost you everything.”  At Luke Chapter 14, verse 28, Jesus tells His followers that they must count the cost to follow Him, then at verse 33 He tells them what that cost will be, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” (Luke 14:33).  Notice that Jesus is not saying here that we must simply be willing to give up everything to follow Him.  He is saying that those who do not give up everything they have, cannot be His disciples.  Jesus calls His followers to a radical devotion that has been largely lost within what we call the church today.

For the most part, what I see in the church today, is a congregation of people who want to follow a Jesus that doesn’t require anything from them.  They want to follow a Jesus that would never place them in a refiner’s pot, much less, ever lead them into the furnace.  I see people comfortable in their commercialized version of Christianity, worshiping the Jesus that they are being taught about by other people, rather than the Jesus they are personally pursuing themselves through prayer and careful study of scripture.  For the most part, those within the church today are following someone else’s version of Jesus rather than the real Jesus of the Bible Who says things like, “He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, and every branch that does bear fruit, He prunes to make it even more fruitful.” (John 15:2).

I guess the question we must ask ourselves is, are we silver or are we gold?  Or are we just a branch that should be cut off because we are bearing no fruit for God with our life?  Are we a branch that is even willing to be pruned by the refining pot, so that the salvation we have received by His grace will be a fruitful branch for His kingdom?  The refining pot will come at a great personal cost, it will be painful, you will grieve the loss of many things that you never realized you were holding onto.  One of the hardest things God ever asked me to do was to let go of what I aspired to do for His kingdom and submit to what He aspired for me to do.  How many of us are truly willing to let go of everything, no matter how much we have reasoned in our heart to continue to hold on?  How many of us have convinced ourselves that we are approaching the cross with empty hands, as we ought, only to look down and see them holding on to something we are trying to bring with us?

As I meditated on the refiner’s pot versus the furnace, I realized how few people actually give themselves wholly over to Christ.  The refiner’s pot serves to prune a person, but the furnace utterly destroys them.  Pruned silver versus pure, untarnished gold.  The furnace leaves nothing of the old person remaining, everything is lost in the furnace, burned away into oblivion, leaving only a purified soul, flawless, whole and complete.  Our great aversion to the refiner’s pot should serve as an acute reminder of how desperately far away each of us are to the spiritual wholeness that comes by the furnace.  The refiner’s pot should remind us that no matter how righteous we think we are, there is always more work to be done in us.  As Christians, we should never be comfortable where we are at in our spiritual growth, but rather, we should long for the refinement that brings us to the spiritual wholeness that is promised by our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The more you truly, personally know Christ, the more you will long for the refinement that comes at great personal cost.  The more you truly, personally know Christ, the more you eagerly anticipate, “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Tim 4:8).

“If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will be evident, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will prove the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as one being snatched from the fire.” (1 Cor 3:12-15)

“These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold–though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.” (1 Peter 1:7)

“But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.” (Job 23:10)

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way as to take the prize. Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable.” (1 Cor 9:24,25)