The Need For The Cross

As we approach Easter, I’m well aware of the fact that many people will simply ignore the day. Some (at least those in the northern hemisphere) will also celebrate it as a “spring is here” day, commemorating the new life in nature demonstrated by buds on trees, green replacing the colorless world of winter, baby birds pushing out of eggs.

But the resurrection of Jesus? No need for such “myths,” many will say.

The resurrection, of course, hinges on the cross. Jesus had to die first before He could be raised incorruptible.

In fact His death was not an act of martyrdom. It wasn’t the tragedy that spawned a movement.

Rather, Jesus did something no one else could do. The nails that crashed into His hands and feet, essentially nailed the “certificate of debt” owed to God by every sinner, to that cross.

The blood Jesus spilled that day was that of a Perfect and Unblemished Lamb—chosen to make redemption possible. His blood did exactly what the blood of the Passover lamb did: it covered those “under the blood” so that the angel of judgment would pass over that place.

Jesus paints His own blood over the doorposts of our heart, so that we who believe He did what He did and promised what He promised, will be redeemed in the exact same way.

Because Jesus went to the cross, anyone of any race or gender or culture or age can now receive remission of that debt we could not pay—the wages of sin which is death itself.

Some people think that God unfairly judges, that “nice” people or “good” people should go free. But that’s like saying the nice rapist should go free or the good business man or great basketball player who abuses his wife should go free.

Because the truth is, we all fall short of God’s standard.

Some people think God is terrible for “sending millions of people to hell.” But the truth is, those “millions” who make themselves God’s enemies, don’t want an eternity with Him.

Some people claim God is cruel for allowing suffering. But again, He has only given way to what people who oppose Him want or have earned:

“Your ways and your deeds
Have brought these things to you.
This is your evil. How bitter!
How it has touched your heart!” (Jeremiah 4:18).

Which brings us back to the debt of sin and the cross that cancels it.

If someone says God is “unfair” for giving laws He knew we wouldn’t keep, they’re missing one important ingredient: holiness. God is perfect, without spot, righteous. A different standard simply would be other than perfect, not holy, marred. Fellowship with a perfect God is not possible for imperfect people.

Unless God makes it possible.

The cross did just that.

Couldn’t God have just changed the rules, waved away the requirement for sin?

Well, that leaves out an important ingredient too: justice.

God is as just as He is holy. When His law is broken, when the debt is owed, He requires payment.

So Jesus paid at the cross.

It’s kind of funny. Of all the objections I’ve heard about Christianity and God’s plan of salvation, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an objection to God loving humanity so much He was willing to die.

Sure, I’ve heard that God the Father was committing child abuse by sending His Son to die. But that’s all wrong. His will was to save the world. He didn’t send a “second god” or a “lesser god” or a human iteration of Himself to die. Jesus is God and Jesus went to the cross even though He could have commanded legions of angels to come rescue Him. He didn’t because “of the joy set before Him.” That joy was each and every person who would love Him back.

The cross is the greatest symbol of God’s love. There Jesus showed God’s love, cancelled the debt of sin, washed away sin, provided a way of escape from the result of sin, and reconciled all who believe in Him to God.

In short, without the cross, there would be no Easter.


Becoming A Christian—What About The Repentance Part?

In my post yesterday I defined a Christian as someone who believes and continues to believe. But believes in what?

The Bible is quite clear. A Christian believes in three separate things. First he recognizes that he is a sinner and that his sin is the problem. His sin keeps him from God. Second he recognizes that the penalty for his sin is death—the physical death we all will experience, but also a spiritual death brought about by God’s judgment. Third, he recognizes that God took the initiative and sent His Son to die in our place, to bear our sins, and to attribute His righteousness to us.

In short, we admit our condition—we are essentially dead men walking. We acknowledge that Jesus did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves—namely that we couldn’t remedy our own condition, so He did it for us.

But what about repentance?

The first part of becoming a Christian is recognizing that sin is the problem. That no matter what we might desire, we simply can’t and don’t love as we should. We don’t love God as we should, we don’t love our friends and family as we should, we don’t love our neighbors as we should, and we certainly don’t love our enemies as we should.

We can do all kinds of things to get rid of sin. We can study self-help books, go to 12-step programs, see a counselor, attend church or even confession, and in some cultures still, perform sacrifices. No matter. Our sin remains.

But even if we do learn a thing or two, if we change our habits and patterns of behavior, if we “clean up our act,” we’re still guilty for what we have done in the past. We face the consequences and we face the penalty.

Unless we accept what Jesus did for us, paying our debt when He went to the cross.

So does that mean we’re then free to return to our sinful ways? Paul says in Romans, may it never be.

The thing about confronting the sin in our life is that we do more than acknowledge it—yep, that’s me, I’m a liar. I’ll just buy into the forgiveness thing and then I can keep on lying.

Or yep, that’s me, an angry person who lashes out at anyone who ticks me off. But I’ll buy into the forgiveness thing and then I can continue allowing my anger full rein.

No, no, no. That kind of admission of sin is more nearly condoning of sin. The only way sin can be properly dealt with is with repentance—a full recognition that the sin is short of God’s mark and deserving of His judgment. And the only way that this kind of repentance is actual, verifiable, real, is if there’s also a turning from that sin.

This discussion reminds me of a conversation that aired on the radio last week. Pastor Greg Laurie was interviewing Bart Millard, lead singer of MercyMe about the upcoming movie entitled I Can Only Imagine, and the book by the same name.

Both tell the true story behind the song “I Can Only Imagine,” which Bart wrote and which became a big crossover hit. As it happens, Bart’s dad was abusive, both physically and emotionally. To top things off, his mom left, but didn’t take Bart with her. He described his dad during that time as a monster.

And then He found Christ. His whole life changed.

Bart described his last years as his dad being the man Bart would like to be.

That’s more than repentance, however, that’s believing in the power of God to change a life. But repentance is certainly part of the equation. Bart’s dad was not thinking, OK, I’m saved now so it doesn’t matter how I treat people. Quite the opposite.

Paul says in Romans that we now walk “in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” It’s the difference between having to do something and wanting to do it. Instead of plodding along in our failure and guilt and shame, we can confess and forsake, with God providing the power through His Spirit to not only become new creatures in Christ but to live as new creatures.

Does such a transformation happen over night? Sometimes, but not usually. Romans 7 gives a good picture of the struggle between our new spiritual nature and the sin that controls our flesh: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”

The great thing is that the end of chapter 7, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” leads to the beginning of chapter 8: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Repentance, then, is actually the means to and the proof of our new relationship with God. Paul explains: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

This dying to sin occurs as we identify with Christ: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Do you think I understood any of that when I became a Christian? Not at all. But I’ve come to understand more and more. I hear stories such as the transformation of Bart’s dad, and I know in a new way that what the Bible says is true.

Christ saves us from the penalty of sin and starts us on the process of living free from sin.

Define Your Terms

I ran across another atheist the other day who apparently is “an ex-Christian.” In another discussion months ago, a different individual told me she had once been “just as you are now.”

Well, how in the world would she know what kind of a spiritual life I have? Did she think that all Christians have exactly the same walk with the Lord? Or was she under the impression that because she did Christian things, that made her a Christian?

It’s hard to know what any of these individuals who no longer claim the name of Christ once thought. They certainly believed at the time that they were Christians. But why did they?

Some people think they’re Christians because they go to church. Once when I was on jury duty, I met a woman who asked me about that when I identified myself as a Christian. Her daughters had asked her, and she didn’t know how to answer. They were under the impression that they were Christians because they were Americans, but they weren’t sure if they needed to go to church in order to be counted as Christians.

Some people think they become Christians by praying a prayer or by being baptized or by taking a class and learning answers to questions about God and the Bible. None of that is undesirable. In fact all those things are good and helpful, but they don’t make a person a Christian.

Becoming a Christian is quite easy, but it’s more than saying magic words or doing a list of right things, or even giving all the right answers to specific questions.

I know former students who raised their hands pretty much every year their teacher at the Christian school where I taught, asked them if they wanted to accept Jesus as their Savior. They got A’s on memory verse tests, attended good Bible-teaching churches, and today want nothing to do with God.

So what makes a person a Christian? Not a temporary assent that I’m a sinner, that I want “Jesus in my heart.” Not memorizing Bible verses, going to church, helping in homeless shelters, giving gifts to needy children, taking communion, being baptized.

Those things can all be true about a Christian, but they don’t make a person a Christian. I’d say, it’s actually pretty easy to mimic someone who is a Christian. After all, if you go to a Christian school and you go to church, the friends you make may all do those same things. Why wouldn’t you do them too? It’s part of kids wanting to fit in. If all your friends are raising their hands, you want to raise your hand, too.

Adults do the same thing. A bunch of people jump to their feet clapping at the end of a concert, and pretty soon more and more people join them. Maybe everyone, though there could be a few who don’t think the performance deserved a standing ovation. Still, they join the crowd rather than being the lone hold out who stays seated.

But that’s beside the point.

The question is, if none of those things I’ve mentioned, make a person a Christian, then what does?

When I was a kid, I was under the impression that Christians didn’t sin. But I sinned. Which was why I went for so long questioning whether or not I was a Christian.

Finally I decided to take God at His word. He said, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). So if I confessed with my mouth, and I had, if I believed in my heart, and I did, then I was just going to assume God meant what He said—I was in fact saved, whether I “felt like it” or not.

So then I tried to figure out when I became a Christian. Was it the first time I asked Him into my heart? The time I went forward in a church service? When I realized on my own what John 3:18 really meant? (“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”)

Much later, as an adult, I can look back and see how God worked in my life all those growing up years, even when I was struggling and doubting and unsure. I’ve concluded that I became a Christian when I first asked Jesus into my heart, though I didn’t really understand much about what that meant. As I gained more understanding, however, I continued to believe.

It’s continuing to believe that makes a person a Christian.

And lo and behold, that’s precisely what the Bible says. Hebrews 3:14 says it clearly: “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.”

The Apostle John used the word “abide” which simply means “stay”: “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9; emphasis mine).

The writer to the Hebrews again: “but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.” (Hebrews 3;6; emphasis mine).

Then there is Matthew’s clear statement: ““But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

I could go on. There are many more verses about abiding, holding fast, persevering until the end, than I ever realized.

So who is a Christian? One who believes and keeps on believing.

The pretenders, who said they believed, obviously didn’t believe at the level that you could call abiding, or holding fast, or persevering.

All this reminds me of the parable of the sower and the seed that started to grow and then got choked out by thorns. Were those beginnings of a plant ever “Christians”? Not by the definition that the Bible gives.

Published in: on February 28, 2018 at 6:18 pm  Comments (6)  
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What’s So Horrible About Sin?

Well, actually, I’m wondering why some people react so negatively when they hear or read, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

You see, to them, it seems, saying they are sinners is a great offense. And we know how cruel you have to be to give offense to someone else! That’s why universities have safe zones.

It’s almost like the idea that we are all sinners is a punch in the face.

And honestly, I don’t understand. I’ve said it before—no one disputes the fact that nobody is perfect. We don’t have to witness every single person on the planet making a wrong choice or displaying a bad attitude or doing a wrong thing. But we know that all the people in our circle are not perfect. The people in the news and at the Olympics and in the movies and on the playing field—not perfect. So it’s an easy conclusion. Nobody’s perfect.

And the reverse? All have sinned.

But somehow that statement is heinous, shocking, unforgivable, even bigoted.

It’s not as if a Christian says, You’re a sinner and I’m not. On the contrary, Christians easily and readily admit they are sinners (except for a small group who believe in sinless perfection, but that’s a topic for another day.)

So why do people who reject Jesus think saying they are sinners is such a horrible affront?

I’m convinced that being confronted with their sinful condition flies in the face of the point of view of the world that Humankind is good.

We may not be perfect, they say, but we’re good.

Which means that “good” actually means “sorta good.” Not all the way good, but mostly good. More good than bad.

Which works fine in a culture that gives trophies to all the kids who participated. You don’t have to be on the best team or a starter or even one who made every practice—you still deserve a trophy. Because you’re good. And we all know you can be whatever you put your mind to.

The promise seems to hang in the air, that you might even become perfect one day.

And then along comes a Christian who says, For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Fall short? Who says?

Well, God does.

Who’s God?

That’s the question Pharaoh essentially asked Moses during their first encounter. But he wasn’t asking for knowledge. He used the question to express his disdain. He actually didn’t care who God was. He’d already made up his mind what he was going to do and he didn’t care what God wanted.

But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2)

That’s where so many are at today. Who cares what God says is good or evil. I say it’s good, so it’s good. I don’t need to worry about hitting his mark. I’ll just move the target closer if I’m falling short. Or I’ll make a bigger target. That’s it! None of this narrow road stuff for me. I want a big tent, a broad way, and a manageable target to hit.

Then I can declare with conviction, I’m not a sinner, you’re not a sinner. Actually I’m OK, and you’re OK. (Unless you’re a hypocrite Christian).

All humor aside, we’re losing our moral compass. What used to be a given when I was growing up is now up for grabs. “Sin” is now in the eye of the beholder, and repentance not needed.

But that’s not how God sees us. He has clearly stated we all fall short of His glory, which makes us sinners. And there’s only one remedy for sin.

Denying that we are sinners does not change the fact. Wishing sin away—no affect. Trying harder, doing good things to compensate, none of it can change our nature, which is the real problem.

It’s like we’re a glass of muddy water. Pouring clean water into the muddy water may dilute the mud, but it doesn’t get rid of it. Washing the outside of the glass does not get rid of the muddy water.

That glass needs a clean start, and no one can give that except Jesus Christ, the Fountain of Living Water. He washes, He cleans, He fills us with Himself.

And the sins so many try to deny or ignore?

As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

What a choice—pretend sins aren’t there or have them removed? This one seems like a no-brainer. Of course, have them removed! But for some, the idea that they have sin seems too horrible to admit, to devastating, to offensive.

The crazy thing is, the offense is not saying we have sin. Actually the sin itself is the offense. That’s what God has told us. But we humans like to have our self-esteem pumped up. And admitting sin doesn’t do that.

Kind of reminds me of my friend whose toe got infected, but he didn’t want to go to the doctor. Until he admitted that he could lose the toe, maybe the foot, even his life, he didn’t get proper treatment.

So too with sin. As long as we refuse the label of sinner, we won’t look for a Savior.

Published in: on February 27, 2018 at 6:16 pm  Comments (4)  
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God’s Plan And The World—A Reprise

For God so loved the world, John 3:16 says. And yet there are people who think Christians are some kind of exclusive club looking to keep out people who aren’t like us.

First, Christianity doesn’t belong to Christians. It belongs to God. Second, it isn’t a club, though it is a relationship—first with God.

Jesus told a story to illustrate how His plan of redemption and reconciliation works.

A rich ruler decided to put on a banquet. He sent out invitations, but one after the other the people he wanted at his feast sent their regrets: A new responsibility needed attention. Another important relationship had to take priority. Too busy to squeeze in the time.

Fine, the ruler said to his servants. They don’t want to come, then they don’t get to come. Invite people from all walks of life, no matter what their status, what their occupation, even the beggars.

When everyone arrived, there was still room for more people, so the rich man sent out his servants again, this time to the places where criminals were apt to hang out, and told them to compel the people to come.

At last the banquet got underway, but one person wasn’t dressed appropriately. Why aren’t you wearing banqueting attire? the host asked. The guest had no answer, so he was put out.

The banquet is a metaphor for the “marriage supper of the Lamb,” the great celebration God has prepare for His people. But “His people” aren’t necessarily who you’d expect. They aren’t an exclusive set handpicked for their charm, wit, intelligence, skill, power, prestige, or money. They are simply those who accepted the invitation. In contrast, those who are too self-important, too determined to go their own way, won’t accept the invitation. And some might accept but won’t come prepared.

This story, this word picture (actually two versions—one in Matt. 22 and the other in Luke 14—which I’ve compressed into one), makes several things clear. First, those who ended up at the rich man’s table, enjoying the feast, did nothing to earn their invitation.

Most of them were going their own way, expecting to do something different, be somewhere else, and suddenly the invitation comes—there’s a banquet, and you’re invited.

To accept such an invitation, it seems to me a person would have to realize what an honor, what a privilege had come their way. If they thought, No big deal; I can throw my own banquet if I want to—then chances are, they wouldn’t put a great deal of priority in attending. If they had plenty of food and weren’t particularly hungry, they could easily have thought ill of the invitation—what a bother, in the middle of the work day? he can’t expect me to drop everything and come just because he’s throwing a party.

But for the people who were out of work, who begged just to buy a scrap of food, who had never sat at a banqueting table in their lives, this invitation had to be the best news they’d ever heard.

Of course, there may have been some who didn’t think the invitation was real. What, you think you’d be invited up to the mansion for a party? You’re deluded. Or someone is scamming you. You’ll show up and somebody will jump out from the bushes and shout, April Fool, and you’re it. I mean, no one, no one in their right mind, invites a bunch of riffraff to share their table.

So the people who benefit from this invitation don’t earn it, but they must trust that the invitation is true.

The_Marriage_Feast_by_MillaisThe part of the story that has long given me trouble is the part about the guy getting put out for not wearing the proper clothes. I’d think none of those beggars or poor or the ones coming in from the highways and the byways would have the proper clothes either. I can only conclude, the banquet attire was something the host provided for his guests, so the man who was dressed inappropriately had no excuse. Which his silence would seem to corroborate.

So there’s God’s plan for the world. He invites, and we either accept or reject. Nothing exclusive about it. In reality, none of us can provide our own banquet. We might think we can, but that’s delusional. Only God can provide what we need. Our role in the matter is to recognize our need and His provision, then trust that He will give what He said He would give. That trust, I believe, is the proper clothing we need. Trying to go to His banquet all dressed up in our own rags of self-righteousness will surely get us barred from the table.

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in April, 2015.


Perfect People Aren’t Saved

No Perfect People

Yesterday I re-posted an article about morally flawed people, and the irony that many who accept their flaws without blinking still think they “deserve” heaven. Today, I want to address the opposite problem: people who think heaven is for good people. This article originally appeared here in May, 2013.

– – – – –

Along with an erroneous view of the Bible, some people also have misconceptions about salvation. One of the most common is that it’s the good people that come to Christ—the people who like church and gospel music, who think a good time means going to a prayer meeting. Those are the people that become Christians.


For one thing, there are no “good people.” If someone is devoted to religious expression but has not believed the claims of Jesus Christ, he’s using his religion to get something he wants. In other words, religious expression can be an evidence of our selfishness, our desire to manipulate—either other people or even God Himself.

Good people aren’t saved. Sinners are saved. The lost are found, the broken are healed, those at the bottom of the pit are rescued. Jesus Himself said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt 9:12b). In context it’s clear he was referring to messed up people—“tax collectors and sinners.”

Even today, I think some Christians have the idea that a person needs to clean up a bit before coming to Christ. Jesus seems to say the opposite. He first encountered people where they were at, and knowing Him then brought about change. In some instances, such as His conversation with the woman caught in adultery, He told her to sin no more. In other instances, such as with Zaccheus, the sinner himself volunteered to clean up his act after his encounter with Jesus.

Either way, Jesus saves sinners, not because they get rid of sin but because they can’t get rid of sin and they know it. They repent but it is Jesus who takes away the sin of the world. It is His Spirit that gives each sinner the desire to live in newness of life.

By our nature, none of us wants to worship God and serve Him [atheists call this our “default position,” not realizing that they are defining the sin nature]. We want to worship ourselves and serve ourselves. We do unto others so that they will do unto us. In other words, we largely look at relationships as trade-offs. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. And woe to the person who doesn’t follow through on his promise. Revenge awaits! Justified revenge, because people are supposed to come through for me (even though I don’t always come through for them).

The interesting thing is, those who think they are good don’t see any need for God. Why would they? They don’t think they need saving.

So it’s ironic that people falsely think good people come to Christ. People good in their own eyes are too busy with their perfectionistic ways to pay attention to what Christ is all about. They are making sure that they recycle, give to the charity of the month, teach their children to be tolerant of all lifestyles, and do their fifty percent of what it takes to have a good marriage.

Don’t get me wrong. When a person comes to Christ, he changes. A thief like Zaccheus doesn’t want to keep stealing. Just the opposite. He has a passion for making right the wrongs he’s done. But his new life is a result of his relationship with Christ, not a cause of it.

He didn’t come to Christ because he stopped stealing. He stopped stealing because he came to Christ.

Too many Christians don’t really understand this new life we experience. We’d like all the old desires to be gone and for some people, they are. For others, it’s a fight to the death, or so it seems. The old desires seem to raise their ugly heads at the least opportune times. Some people experience gradual and constant improvement. What they used to do, they hardly do any more. What they want to do to please Jesus, they find delights them now, too.

The process, we’re told, is sanctification—growing up into our salvation, becoming like Jesus through the supernatural transformation of His Spirit. Most of us think it’s a long process that doesn’t show a lot of results to most of those who are close enough to us to see our warts.

And because we fall down so often, because lots of people think only the good come to Jesus, we give Christ’s name a bad reputation—because clearly, Christians sin. When we think about it, it grieves our hearts because we’re dragging Jesus’s name into the mud. We’re letting people think poorly of our Savior because we wallow in the sins we say He saved us from.

Christians aren’t good people. We’re saved people, and it’s important that we let others see who we are: a people who have received mercy, who have been pardoned, redeemed, cleansed, forgiven, and who one day, when we see Jesus face to face, will be like Him. It’s just that we’re not there yet.


Mercy And Justice And George MacDonald—A Reprise

Some time ago one commenter left a link to a sermon George MacDonald is purported to have authored (I have yet to find mention of the source). The only Biblical text I found was Psalm 62:12, which states

And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, For You recompense a man according to his work.

In the King James, which the sermon quotes, lovingkindness is rendered mercy. The writer then makes a case for his interpretation of justice, leading to a denial of justice as punishment.

How odd this position seems to me, but perhaps that’s because I’ve had good Bible teaching all my life.

The cultures around Israel during King David’s time (Psalm 62 is one of his) did not practice justice. They practiced revenge. Consequently, the declaration that God would recompense a man according to his work was a statement of mercy. He would not punish a man for something his father did or punish the brothers or the children. God’s mercy was demonstrated in His justice, set in opposition to their vengeance.

How simple and straightforward. How righteous.

We are accountable before a Holy God for what we do. He does not pile on more than we deserve.

But here’s the thing. We are required by law to stop at stop signs. If I run a stop sign and get pulled over by a cop, I am guilty of breaking that law. No matter that I’ve not run a stop sign the prior 2000 times, or the 200 million times before that. Stopping at the stop sign is what I am required by law to do. Fulfilling my obligation does not earn me points against a future time when I might slip up and run the stop sign.

In other words, there is nothing I can do to make up for my situation. I can only recognize my condition—I am a lawbreaker deserving of the just (and merciful) penalty for my actions.

What great news, then, that Jesus, who was not a lawbreaker, and therefore, faced no penalty, stepped in to rescue sinners.

The amazing love of God is beyond comprehension here, because God did not wave His hand and dismiss my sin. He bore it Himself. He transferred my sin in the same way that the sins of Israel were transferred to scapegoats. It’s a mystical process, if you will, something that sounds too incredible, too hard to fathom. The Holy God, unstained in His being, complete in His purity, piled my sin on His shoulders. He bore my sin and carried my sorrow.

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
– I Peter 2:24

And in more detail from Isaiah

But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors.
– Isa 53:10-12 [emphasis mine]

Paid in full. The blood of Jesus Christ blots out my sin. I receive God’s mercy when I understand that my work is insufficient to pay what I owe, that Christ alone could afford to bear my sin because He bore none of His own. The angel of death passes over me as surely as he once passed over the Jewish homes that bore the blood of the spotless Passover lamb slain on their behalf.

What a clear picture of God’s redemptive work—the marriage of His Justice and Mercy—prompted by His infinite Love.

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in December 2010.

Published in: on January 26, 2018 at 5:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Salvation And The Christian Writer

Not everyone is a writer, but I suspect these thoughts, first shared in September 2010, apply to people of other professions as well.

Before I precede, however, I want to point out the unique nature of today’s date. It’s 1/8/18. Cool, don’t you think?

And now on to the topic at hand.

As I was talking with a writer friend a number of years ago, it dawned on me that what I believe about salvation shapes my attitude toward fiction.

By way of background, there has been from time to time, a group of writers who plea for Christians to free their art from any “utilitarian” purpose, such as preaching the gospel.

I’ve been on the fence to a great extent because I do want Christians to write fiction that stands the test of time, and that’s usually a work that bears some kind of mark as “art.” However, I believe wholeheartedly in the idea that a “utilitarian” theme is necessary for fiction to be great art—if the writer doesn’t say something meaningful, then why would that story be around tomorrow, let alone fifty years from now?

But here’s the intersection between that point and my realization about salvation. If a Christian has certain views about salvation—a “God’s sovereign so I have no part in salvation” view or a broad understanding of who is saved (from some form of universalism to a belief that the sincere or the “good” or the consistent are saved)—he may feel little or no urgency to carry the message of Christ to the dying world. (Of course, a third option might be a “let them burn” lack of concern for the lost, but then I’d wonder about the genuineness of that person’s profession of faith).

Am I saying that every piece of fiction a Christian writes should have the gospel message embedded? No, I don’t think I can make any determination what other writers should write. Let’s just say I understand the divide better.

Some writers, myself included, look at fiction as our opportunity to reach thousands of readers, some who may have yet to hear the message of forgiveness in Christ through his redemptive work at the cross. These writers feel an urgency to get this message out to as many people as possible. The world, as we see it, has one and only one hope—Christ Jesus—and here we sit, holding this vital information. How can we watch people stream by our doors day after day and do nothing?

A writer with a different persuasion has no such sense of urgency. Fiction, instead, may be an exploration of spirituality, a personal journey of discovery regarding spiritual matters.

The difference in purpose makes perfect sense based on the difference in theology.

Ironic that some people don’t realize the importance of understanding our own belief system. I recently read a blog post about how dreary it is to read about such topics as original sin (hmmm—wonder if the writer had a particular blog in mind. 😉 ) when what we should be doing is getting out from behind our computers and living like Christians.

I certainly agree that we should live like Christians. I simply think that includes my moments behind the computer.

What fiction writers understand is the need to know our characters at the level of their beliefs—that’s what makes their actions properly motivated. Real life is the same way. Our beliefs inform our actions. How critical that we know what we believe about something so eternal-life giving as salvation.

Published in: on January 8, 2018 at 4:46 pm  Comments (2)  
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What Does It Mean To Be A Christian?

I know it’s getting close to Christmas, so this post should be more traditionally about things like shepherds and wisemen or bells and Christmas trees. Those will come. But Christ’s birth began what we now call Christianity, so I thought it might be important to answer the question: what is a Christian?

In the early days after Jesus rose from the dead, after Peter preached his first sermon, Christianity was not considered a new world religion. Some of the Jews called it a cult. Christians themselves referred to it as “The Way,” and many continued keeping the Jewish Law. In fact many thought all Christians should keep the Law, even those Gentiles who joined hands with them in fellowship.

Because Gentiles were included in Christianity. The book of Acts details how God’s Spirit convinced the church leadership that just like Jews came to faith by God’s grace, not by works which they did, so Gentiles too were coming to faith by God’s grace and not their good deeds done in righteousness.

Women became Christians too, not just men. And some poor, some rich. In other words, Christians didn’t look a certain way. There was the Greek woman Lydia and the unnamed Ethiopian man who Phillip baptized. There was the educated Jew, Paul, and his half Greek/half Jewish disciple, Timothy. There were believers in Rome and believers in Ephesus. There were kings and there were slaves.

Christians didn’t have to be from a certain background or come out of a similar belief system. What they needed was belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. That was the necessary ingredient.

Nothing has changed.

Well, one thing has.

In those early days nobody was professing to be a Christian if they weren’t really believers. Because persecution set in fairly soon. Stephen, one of the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem, was killed for his faith in Jesus. His death sparked a wave of persecution that caused many to flee.

The “many” were not all locals. Some were. But many had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast of Passover and were still there at Pentecost when Peter got up and told them who Jesus is. They believed and stayed so they could learn more and so they could enjoy the strength they received by being in the company of others who also believed.

When they scattered to their homes or to places they felt would be safer, they took their new-found faith with them. They received instruction from traveling preachers like Paul and Silas and Barnabas and John Mark and Apollos and Aquila and Priscilla. And they studied the scriptures which gave them deeper understanding about Jesus. Because belief in Jesus set them apart.

Interestingly, as Peter noted, those scriptures included letters from Paul. And, as it turned out, from Peter himself, from James and Titus and John.

These letters were read aloud in the various churches, not just the ones to which they were originally written, and from them the new believers came to understand more about Jesus and what was required of them.

For example, James made it clear that a person couldn’t just mouth words of faith without actually exhibiting the actions that faith produced. John spelled out how a person couldn’t just say he loved God and then turn around and hate his brother. From Paul they learned the importance of unity, the purpose of the Church, the way Christians were to respond to government leaders and to each other, and so on.

The main thing to note here is that Christians believed and followed the teaching of the Apostles who had walked and talked with Jesus, and they followed the Scriptures. They were, at their core, disciples of Jesus Christ, though they now understood He came to set up a spiritual kingdom, though He would one day return as reigning Lord.

The Apostles actually warned them against following false teachers. In one of his letters, John said, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh.” Deceivers. There were also some who preached that Jesus had already come back—when clearly He hadn’t. Still others preached the need to keep the Jewish Law. Then there were those like Simon the magician who simply wanted to tap into the power that made it possible for the Apostles to do miracles. He wanted to use Christ, not worship Him,

The Way was not confusing or complicated: believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. But false teachers preached different gospels in the name of The Way.

Until persecution poured down upon Christians from Rome. I think the suffering caused by the executions of Christians in the Colosseum and through other heinous means may have stopped a lot of people from simply getting on the bandwagon. After all, who would want to associate with people doomed to die painful deaths because of what they believed?

Today things are different here in the US. Not so different in other parts of the world where being a Christian may not be easy or popular. But here, Christians have enjoyed a great deal of peace and prosperity over the decades. Only until the last thirty years or so has being a Christian become a position that fewer people admit to and fewer people mean.

There are some of the same false teacher types in our society as existed in the first century. We have some people who have added “later revelations” which are simply the “different gospel” which Paul warned against. There are people who want the power of God instead of a relationship with Him, as Simon the magician wanted. There are some who think they are Christians because they were born in America, because they’ve gone to church all their life. In other words, they think their good deeds done in righteousness or their cultural heritage or some other thing makes them a Christian.

It doesn’t.

What makes a person a Christian has not changed. Someone who believes on the name of God’s only begotten Son for salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and who lives that faith—who doesn’t just say he loves God, but who shows he loves God—that person is a Christian.

Published in: on December 5, 2017 at 5:49 pm  Comments (3)  
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No One Can Earn Heaven

The second tenet of the Reformation is “sola fide,” or faith alone. Of course atheists have a field day with such a statement. So many believe that Christians simply decide to believe in God because they like the idea of salvation or heaven and we have no actual reason behind our faith.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And though I’ve had numerous discussions about the difference between faith and blind faith, the conviction seems entrenched: Christians believe in pie-in-the-sky with no supportive reason behind their decision to do so.

In truth, faith is far from this simplistic understanding. In reality, Christians trust the source that informs them about spiritual things: the Bible. The Bible has been proved to be reliable, and in it we learn about faith that is assurance, faith that provides the means to grace:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9; emphasis mine)

Spiritual things. Christians believe in things not seen. We believe in spiritual beings and a spiritual world that is beyond our physical senses. I know for those who don’t believe in the spiritual, they consider such belief to be akin to superstition. But here’s the difference. Our faith is not in ourselves or what we can do.

That’s the “sola” part. We can’t give any amount of money to a church or a ministry, to the poor or the orphaned. We can’t say enough prayers or memorize enough Bible verses. We can’t stand against social injustice or for life or preach about what makes a healthy marriage, or any number of other things, as a means to buy our way into God’s grace.

No. God gives grace. We can’t earn it. We can never be good enough. We can never do enough. It’s simply not possible for us to deal with our bent toward rebellion against God all by ourselves. We can’t curry His favor. We can’t change our circumstances.

We simply must believe that God meant what He said—that He has provided for us what we could not provide for ourselves.

The thing is “belief” is not enough. The book of James states that the demons also believe (and tremble). They aren’t saved for their belief. Why not? Because they persist in their rebellion against God.

The faith that saves is not faith alone. James calls that kind of faith useless and likens it to the body without the spirit—in other words, a corpse, a lifeless corpse.

Instead, the faith that is the conduit of God’s grace, is faith with teeth, faith that signs us up, that puts us all in. We can’t simply say the words. We have to live the life. So believers are people who do what Jesus said, not just give passing agreement to the idea that He was a wise teacher.

No. Jesus specified two commands: love God with all of you and love your neighbor as yourself.

The guy who approached Jesus about how he could please God did a follow-up: who is my neighbor? Jesus replied, as he often did, by telling a story. The essence of this parable which we call The Good Samaritan, is that our neighbor is whoever is in need that crosses our path, be it friend or enemy. We aren’t to step over a fallen traveler along life’s way because we want to keep ourselves from getting our hands dirty. We need to serve others sacrificially.

That’s the kind of faith James is talking about—faith in action. That’s the kind of faith that changes a life, that turns us from living for ourselves to living for God and for others. It’s no accident or coincidence that Christians were at the forefront of the establishment of hospitals and the leaders in medical practice, founding universities and pioneering nursing, advocating for abolition and any number of other social issues.

Of course, there’s a temptation to take the cart without the horse—to do the works as a replacement for the faith that God asks of us. In other words “sola fide” is not simplistic. It’s not a “say this prayer then live how you want” affair.

Paul says it in Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”After all, the more I sin, the more God has to forgive, so lots of people will see His grace.

Paul goes on, though, and says, “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

The next verses show our relationship with Christ, that our identification with Him means we died with Him so that, as He was raised from the dead, we might have newness of life.

Newness of life! That’s why old things have passed away. That’s why we can set our minds on things above, not on things on the earth.

In short, faith is the conduit of being “born again.” That phrase has fallen into disrepute of late, but the Bible uses the term and the concept more than once. Jesus, for example, tells Nicodemus he must be born again. Being a literalist, apparently, Nicodemus asked how he was supposed to pull that off since he couldn’t re-enter his mother’s womb.

Not that kind of birth, Jesus seems to say. This is spiritual birth, the kind that revives dead bones. “I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life (Ezekiel 37:14a)

Published in: on October 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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