Tag Archives: salvation

How to transform your life from useless to useful – Philemon 8-25, Part 2

27 Aug
Photo by Linh Nguyen on Unsplash

Have you ever felt useless in life? Maybe you watch others around you, friends and family, and it seems they are successful, advancing, making a difference in the world, enjoying life. Then you think about your life, and maybe you see a past littered with failure, broken relationships, and poor choices. Even if that describes you a little bit, know that you are not alone. Today we meet a man with a broken past. In fact, he was described as useless. At the outset, though, let me give you a hint: there is hope!

So far in our study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, in verses 1-7 we’ve seen Paul profusely encourage Philemon to see himself as a lover of Jesus who also loves all of Jesus’ followers. Then in verses 8-9, Paul begins to make an appeal to Philemon, because there is a specific situation in which Paul wants Philemon to practice that love for Jesus and all his followers. Paul knows that Philemon has a broken relationship in his life, and in verses 10-21, Paul makes his appeal to Philemon to fix that relationship.

What relationship? Paul is writing Philemon on behalf of Onesimus who used to be Philemon’s slave.  But something happened.  We don’t know all the details, but in verse 18 Paul gives some clues.  It seems that Onesimus not only ran away from Philemon, but may have even stolen from him.  Onesimus then made his way to Rome where he met up with Paul.  My guess is that one of three things led Onesimus to Paul. 

First option: Paul had previously become friends with Philemon.  It is possible that Paul would have also met his slave at the same time.  As time goes by, Paul ends up in Rome on house arrest, and Onesimus runs away from Philemon, hoping upon hope that Paul will help him.  If you’ve just committed a crime, and you don’t know where to go, you often seek a person you think will be understanding.  In Onesimus’ mind, Paul fits the bill.

Second option: It could be that Onesimus and Paul hadn’t previously met, but Onesimus still seeks out Paul for help, simply because of Paul’s reputation.

Third option: Onesimus just so happens to end up in Rome and comes across Paul.  Seems unlikely, but as we all know, unlikely things happen all time. 

The rest of the story, Paul tells us.  There in Rome, as he says in verse 10, Onesimus becomes his son.  That is strong family language, right?  Paul writes like this often, calling people his “son” in the faith.  What he means is that he shared Christ with Onesimus, and Onesimus chose to place his faith in Christ, giving Jesus both his assent and allegiance.  In other words, through Paul’s ministry on house arrest, Onesimus becomes a Christian. 

In verse 11 you see Paul’s literary flourish as he uses a wordplay, and most of your Bibles will point to this in a text note.  Almost certainly Onesimus was a difficult case for Philemon, and Paul knew this. If he hadn’t previously heard the story of Onesimus’ running away, he now heard it from Onesimus. Maybe Onesimus was a bad worker, maybe he was insubordinate, a back-talker, a slacker, we don’t know. As a result, maybe Philemon was hard on Onesimus, and that led to his running away. Or maybe Onesimus just wanted to be free. When Paul describes Onesimus as “formerly useless,” it could be all of the above. But here’s wordplay: Onesimus’ name means “useful,” and what does Paul say in verse 11?  Onesimus has gone through a transformation from uselessness to usefulness.  Through the work of Jesus in Onesimus’ life, a great change has happened. Onesimus is now as his name suggests, useful!  And not just to Philemon, Onesimus, Paul says, is useful to Paul too.  Apparently Onesimus was on fire for Jesus, serving, helping Paul. 

So Paul has a tough decision to make.  Do you send a runaway slave back to their master, knowing that it might not go well for that slave?  Or do you keep him with you, especially considering the amazing change that has taken place in his life?  There’s a lot riding on this.  If Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, how will Philemon handle it?  Philemon really seems to be a good man, but Onesimus had betrayed Philemon, and Philemon could have a bad reaction. Also consider this from Onesimus’ point of view.  How much convincing did Paul have to do to get Onesimus to agree to this, after having wronged Philemon and run away?  How scared was he to go back there?  We can imagine Paul having a talk with Onesimus: “Now that you are follower of Jesus, there’s something we need to discuss. Philemon. Your master. How you treated him. Your broken relationship. Jesus is in the business of making things right. We’re going to need to deal with this.”

Now are you seeing why Paul gushes so much over Philemon in verses 1-7?  All that talk about loving all Christians?  Yeah.  It’s because Paul is dropping a bomb right in Philemon’s lap.  And that bomb is Onesimus.  Paul chooses to send Onesimus back, as we read in verse 12, which is the right thing to do. In fact, under Roman law, it was the legal thing to do. Philemon owns Onesimus, and Paul chooses to submit Onesimus to that relationship, as he says in verse 14.

At this juncture we need to pause and talk about slavery in the Roman Empire.  Even just saying “Philemon owns Onesimus” feels wrong.  But that is what was going on.  He was legally seen as property. 

Doesn’t it seem really odd that Philemon, a Christian, owns slaves, and that Paul would send a runaway slave back to his master!  Shouldn’t Philemon set his slaves free?  And shouldn’t Paul say, “Onesimus, you are not going back there into slavery”?  Yes, it seems like that should be happening, but none of it did.  As we’ll see, Paul has a whole lot more to say, but for now I want to point out that slavery in the Roman Empire, while it was awful, as slavery always is, was not like slavery in our American past.  Frankly, American slavery was worse.  A horrible, racial, terrible evil.  It was evil in the Roman Empire too, but it was not racial, and slaves actually had some measure of opportunity for freedom and advancement.  What I do not want you to hear me saying, though, is that slavery was okay in the Roman Empire.  It was different than American slavery, but it still was not okay.  It was evil and wrong back then and went against God’s desires.  I, too, wish Paul would have said more to denounce it.

So what did he say?  Next if Part 3 we continue observing his flow of thought, which will have significant implications for not only Philemon and Onesimus, but so much more, including the practice of slavery.

God’s purpose for your life – Titus 3:1-8, Part 4

8 Aug
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Stop! Don’t read this post. (I know. That’s not an advisable way to start a blog post.)

Before continuing with this post, thought, if you haven’t read the previous post, part 3, please go back and read it here. In this series of posts, we’re studying the amazing teaching of Titus 3:1-8, so actually, I would recommend you start with the first post. But at the very least, please take a few minutes and scan through part 3 in this series, as you need to have a grasp of the verses in Titus 3 that post covered in order to see the significance this one will cover.

What I talked about in the previous post relates to the next phrase in verses 5-6, “renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Paul has been teaching about the transformation that God works in our lives. Christians often call it salvation, and in that amazing gift of grace, Paul says, God pours the Holy Spirit into our lives, further causing renewal to take place.  That means God himself enters our lives to renew us.  I don’t know that I can understate how important that is. 

I get the sense that we need to think and contemplate an awful lot more on the fact that the Spirit of God has been poured out on us to renew us. 

In the midst of busy lives, of work, of sports, of Netflix, of TV, of all that you do, have you pushed the Spirit to some tiny corner of your lives?  Intellectually, I would agree the Spirit is with me.  But in the reality of my day to day life, to what degree do I have a relational connection with the Spirit?  If I’m honest, I rarely think about or attempt to interact with the Spirit.  How about you?  Because God is with us, by his Spirit, however, wouldn’t a deeper connection with the Spirit be something we should look into? 

But Paul is not done.  Look at verse 7.  His thought continues, and there is more incredible news.  All this amazing mercy and love and kindness of God, that saved us, washed us, and renewed us from an old way of life, is for a reason.  God has a purpose. 

Before telling us the purpose, Paul has one more important phrase to set the stage. 

Paul says, “Having been justified by his grace.”

“Justified” is a really important biblical theological word, rich in meaning.  Oftentimes scholars debate as to how we should understand it.  The word that Paul used has the idea of putting things in right relation, or making things right.  That’s what God does through Jesus.  He is making things right between us and God.  Another English word that might be an even better fit is “rectification.”  By his grace, God rectifies the situation, he makes it right. As we’ve already seen in the previous post, God makes us into new people, and earlier in this post, God generously pours his Spirit into our lives. God is at work making things right in our lives.

Why would God do this?  If it wasn’t because of anything we did, and it wasn’t, why would he do this?  As I said, he has a purpose.  Paul now puts it all together telling us why God’s kind, loving, merciful gracious salvation appeared into our darkness, saving us, transforming us, even to the point of pouring out his Spirit on us through Jesus.  Why would God do all that?  Why would Jesus go through the incredible 33 years of his birth, life, death and resurrection?

Paul tells us in verse 7: “so that we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” 

This is amazing good news! 

Paul is using family language here.  God wants us to be his heirs.  That means he wants to adopt us into his family.  This is exactly what he said in Titus 2:14, that he was making a people for himself.  God wants you to be in his family. Stop reading this post, and just dwell on that thought a minute. God wants you to be in his family. Do you know that? What do you think about that?

But wait, there’s more, Paul says! God also wants you to have the hope of eternal life.  As I said in the series of posts on Titus 2:11-15, though in that section Paul was teaching about good news in Jesus, he surprisingly didn’t talk about eternal life. He does now.  God wants us to have hope of new life with him now and for eternity. That’s how much God wants you to be in his family.

So look really closely at what God has done.  Into our mess, God appears and does a work of transformation, giving us the gift of himself, so that we can be a part of his family and have hope for eternal life.  That’s good, good news.  That’s worthy of jumping, shouting, cheering, praising, and getting on iMessage, Instagram, Facebook or your phone or walking around your neighborhood and saying, “People, do you realize what God has done???” Paul is describing the revolutionary work of God that is available to all: he wants you to become new, so that you can be a part of his family now and for eternity.

How you can know that you are truly a Christian – Titus 2:11-15, Part 5

2 Aug

How do you know if you are truly a Christian? Have you ever doubted? Have you wondered if your faith is real?

We’ve heard a lot of good news in this series of posts on Titus 2:11-15 about God’s love for us. Before we get a big head from all this good news that God has for us, as if we are somehow the center of the universe, Paul lastly says in Titus 2:11-15 that Jesus gave himself for us so that we might be eager to do what is good

We have seen this all along in his letter to Titus. Good works.  In Titus 2:11-15, Paul teaches sound doctrine, or the truth about Jesus, so that we might be transformed into people who are eager to do what is good.  That means we turn our gaze away from ourselves to others.

The word Paul uses is where we get our English word “zealous”, meaning “filled with zeal.”  Because we don’t use the words “zeal” or “zealous” all that much, here’s a definition for you: “to be energetically committed.”  Passionate.  Connect zeal with the good news about Jesus, and we get a clue about how to know that we are truly Christian: people who are genuinely transformed by Jesus are easy to spot because they are the ones passionate about doing good. 

Doing good is a broad concept, and it covers personal piety, which is all about our individual choice to think like Jesus, talk like Jesus and live like he did.  But doing good goes beyond the personal, into the realm of society, which is also how Jesus lived. He didn’t just live well in his personal life, he also healed the sick, taught the good news of his Kingdom, fed the hungry, and freed people from oppression.  Christians, therefore, follow Jesus’ example, filled with mercy for those in need, pursuing justice for the oppressed, and declaring good news available to all.  We should be known for working at local social services agencies, visiting in prisons, raising godly families, talking about how Jesus has changed us, working with creativity and honor, curing disease, making artistic works of beauty, scientific discovery, political peacemaking, and spending our lives for all that is good in the world.  That is the impact of the good news of Jesus. It not only changes individual lives, but has the power to transform the world.

But thinking about all that we have learned this week about the good news of Jesus, as Paul describes it in Titus 2:11-15, did you notice something important missing from this passage?  Look back over Titus 2:11-15.  There is a glaring omission from Paul’s presentation of the Gospel.  Compare Titus 2:14 to John 3:16 for example, and then can you see the difference?  John 3:16 focuses on salvation that leads to eternal life.  But here in Titus 2:14, the concept of eternal life is totally missing.  I’m not saying that Paul is messing up the Gospel, by the way.  As we’ll see in chapter 3, he gets to talking about eternal life.  For now, though, Paul is emphasizing another, and equally important, aspect of the Gospel: transformation for life now.

Sound doctrine leads to good works.  So the question becomes, how do you know if you know God and he knows you?  How do you know if you are being transformed by him?  How do you know if you are redeemed, purified, and eager to do what is good, as Paul teaches in Titus 2:14?

Jesus once said, “By their fruits you will know them.”  He is referring to what comes out of your life.  In my back yard, the apple tree makes apples, and the peach tree makes peaches.  Christians, you make the fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control.  You know the Spirit is transforming your life when you see those actions flowing out of your life.

Jesus once said, for example, “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”  We often let ourselves off the hook on this, even if we have broken relationships, by saying, “Well, I’m pretty much a loving person.”  But Christians are being transformed into really, really loving people.  Christians even love their enemies. 

The clear message that Paul is giving Titus, and us, is the answer to what he said in chapter 1, verse 16.  There he referred to people in the church who said they knew God, but by their actions they showed they actually denied God.  In other words, you can know that you really know God because your life will be transformed, and God’s goodness will flow out of your life.

What we have in Titus 2:11-15 is the Gospel, the good news that God’s gracious gift of salvation, through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is available to all.  We will know that we receive that gift as evidenced by the change that takes place in our lives.  We are redeemed, purified and eager to do good.  Think about those three words.  Redeemed, Purified, Eager to do good.  How are you expressing the transformation God is doing in your life?  How is his fruit growing in your life?  There should be clear evidence of God’s goodness growing in you.  How are you seeing that goodness impact the lives of other people around you, and impact your community?

How to be adopted into God’s family – Titus 2:11-15, Part 4

1 Aug

Would you say that you are close to God? Or distant? Thinking in family terms, would you say you are part of God’s family? I recently blogged about the phrase that people sometimes use, “We’re all God’s children.” As I reflected on that phrase, I found it needed further explanation. You can read that post here. As we continue studying Titus 2:11-15, what we find it that anyone can be adopted into God’s family. Keep reading to learn how!

Paul’s long sentence continues in verse 13 where he says that we live this Jesus-shaped life, while we wait for the blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and savior Jesus Christ

When Paul calls Jesus “our great God and savior Jesus Christ,” he is saying that Jesus and God are one and the same.  Philip Yancey, in The Jesus I Never Knew, says that Christians often wonder “Where is God? Does God care about my life?”  Yancey’s response is that we should look at Jesus.  Jesus is God in the flesh, and thus it will become clear, as we look at Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, not only who God is, but that God cares deeply for us.

We look to him, Paul says, while we are waiting for his return.  He is coming again.  Jesus himself told his disciples that he was going back to his father, but that they should be ready for his return.  What does it mean to be ready?  Paul is describing it for us.  It means receiving God’s gift of grace and allowing that grace to inform and energize our lives to the point where we would say “NO” ungodliness and worldly passions, and we would follow the example and way of Jesus. 

After saying that we should be waiting for Jesus’ return, he goes on in verse 14 to talk about Jesus.  Some people have called verse 14 “the Gospel in a nutshell.”  The word “Gospel” is an Old English way of saying “Good News,” and it refers to the story of Jesus, that in Jesus there is Good News for humanity.  That’s exactly what Paul has been getting at in these verses.  That God’s gracious gift has appeared to all, bringing salvation to humanity

Paul begins verse 14 by saying Jesus gave himself for us.  How did Jesus give himself for us?  Think about his birth, life, death, and resurrection.  He became one of us.  Though he is God, he took on a human body, and was born into this world.  That was the beginning of the gift of himself.  Then the gift continued as he lived with perfection, showing us how to live, showing us what it means to be human for 33 years.  Then he gave himself by sacrificing himself, dying for us to defeat the power of sin, death and the devil, to make right that which was broken.  But he didn’t just give us the gift of his birth, life and death; he also gave us the gift of new life, of which he was first, when he rose again from the dead.  So through him we, too, can have a totally new life. 

So Jesus gave himself for us, and Paul now describes three results of Jesus giving himself for us.

First, Jesus gave himself for us to redeem us.  What is redemption?  The image this word carries is that of being set free.  What once enslaved us, no longer does so.  We are set free to live a new life of freedom.  That is why Paul says we are redeemed from wickedness.  We are set free from slavery to wickedness and we are set free to live godly lives. 

Paul’s thought continues with the second point, that Jesus gave himself for us to purify for himself a people that are his own.  Through his gift of himself there is a radical change that can take place in the lives of those who receive his gift.  A purification takes place.  A cleansing.  This is symbolized when we celebrate the ritual of baptism.  When we receive his gift of grace, Jesus enters our lives and makes us new. 

And maybe it goes without saying, but I’m going to say it.  What God wants for you, this idea of cleansing you, this radical change, is better by far than anything out there.  In our world today, there are so many competing ideas for what is the good life.  Paul is saying that what God has in store for you is far better.

I love how Paul describes this in Titus when he says that Jesus wants to purify us so that we are a people who are his own.  This purification is the idea of a cleansing that happens in our lives, whereby God gives his holiness to us.  If you search online for the word “cleanse,” you get a lot of pictures of people washing their face or hands, using a cleansing product to remove the impurity that got on their skin.  In our world there is lots of impurity from pollution or dirt or something else outside them.  You wash it off, and you are cleansed.  But when God purifies us, he cleans deeper than that.  We are changed from the inside out, because he gives his purity to us, a purity or holiness that we didn’t have before that. 

And what is more, Paul tells Titus, this purification allows us to be adopted into God’s family.   Once we were not the people of God, but now through Jesus giving himself, we can be part of his family.  Think about the richness of that.  When you receive the God’s gracious gift of salvation, believing in him and giving your life to follow him, you become his very own.  That means, to God you are not just a nameless face in the crowd.  You are not just a number or a statistic.  You are his very own.  This word carries the idea of how special you are to God.  He knows your name, he is close to you.  He wants to talk with you and walk with you and spend time with you.  That’s what Jesus wanted to happen when he gave his life for you.  Think about that!  The almighty God of the universe actually cares that much about you!  Did you know that?  So not only does he want to break the chains of what is destroying you, he wants to cleanse you, and make you a whole new person, and be close to you.

I’d be glad to talk with you further about this. Just comment below!

When you forget to save your work – Titus 2:11-15, Part 1

29 Jul

I was listening to a podcast recently that was talking about research into the mob.  Organized crime families.  What the research revealed was fascinating: most mobsters don’t want to be mobsters.  In fact, even when they themselves cannot break free from a life of crime, they will go to great lengths to help their kids and grandkids do so.  While you are likely not living a life of organized crime, you have likely felt frustration about the difficulty of being good and doing good in your own life.  It might be a struggle with addiction.  It might be that difficult family member or friend.  It might be a bad habit.  It might be a money problem, stress at work, the difficulties of school, of parenting.

Even though we make fun of goody-two-shoes people, as if there is something uncool about do-gooders, and even though we humans have a natural tendency to sin, we also have a desire to be and do good.  Often we forget that very first chapter of the Bible, which tells the story of God creating the universe, we read that after God would create something he said over and over again, it was good, it was good, and it was very good. Yet we can struggle to be good. How, then, do we become good?  As we continue studying Paul’s short letter to his friend Titus, Paul talks about this very concept of being and doing good. 

I encourage you to open your Bible or Bible app to Titus 2:11-15. As you turn there, remember that Paul and Titus had previously started churches on the island of Crete.  He then sent Titus there to appoint leaders in the churches, and now in this short letter, he is giving Titus important instructions for the churches in Crete.  We’ve heard how the people in Crete were known for being wild and crazy, and Paul is very hopeful that these new Christians will be different.

In verse 11 Paul starts off with the word, “For.”  That’s one of those connecting words, meaning he has a flow of thought, where one idea leads to the next.  So glance up at verse 10 to see where his flow of thought is coming from. 

He has just talked about how Christians who were slaves could behave honorably, so that they would make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.  When we studied that passage, I suggested it can apply to us too, maybe especially in our workplaces.  How we act, how we live, how we make choices, what we say, all of our life choices, make the teaching about God either attractive or repulsive. 

What Paul is saying in verse 10 is that oftentimes actions speak louder than words.  So live in such a way as to give people a compelling reason to want to hear the words of the story. Because the story of the Kingdom of God has important words, concepts, and ideas, what are the words?  That’s where Paul goes next in verse 11, and thus we now have an idea of his flow of thought.

He begins verse 11 with a foundational concept to the story of good news: the Grace of God. What is grace?  Paul says that whatever grace is, it is “of God.”  There is, then, a unique grace that comes from God.  It is not human.  It is the grace of God.  

This grace is best understood and favor or kindness coming from God.  It is not earned.  It is God’s choice to act with kindness to us, based solely in his desire to be that way.  He doesn’t owe it to us.   

This is why the word Paul uses for “grace” is also translated “gift” in many other places.  In that idea we see something important about grace.  God’s kindness or favor to us is a gift he gives us. And what is the gift he gives us?  Paul says God’s grace brings salvation.  So in his kindness to us, God gives us the gift of salvation.  We Christians throw around this word “salvation” a lot.  But what does it mean to be saved? 

We save things that are in danger of being lost.  We save things to preserve them for the future.  How many of you have had the agony of working on an email or paper for school or maybe you were playing a video game, and you have made so much progress, and the something happens, there is a glitch, or you accidentally turn off the computer, and you forgot to hit the “save” button?  Your work, your progress is gone!  Whew, that hurts right? 

That’s very similar to the salvation Jesus brings.  There is the real possibility that people, because of their willing choice to not believe in Jesus and not follow his way, are separated from his Kingdom, not a part of his covenant family.  But God is gracious to us, making salvation available to us.

At this point in verse 11 Paul only tells us that salvation is available to us by God’s choice to be gracious.  How does grace bring salvation?  Keep following this week’s posts, as Paul will get to that! 

False Ideas Christians Believe About…Salvation

11 Jun

What happens when we die? Is there a way to know? In this post we are fact-checking phrases about salvation and the afterlife:

  1. We’re all God’s children.
  2. We need people to pray the Sinners’ Prayer.
  3. Jesus wants to live in your heart.
  4. I’m so sorry for your loss. Heaven must have needed another angel.

First, let’s consider the phrase: We’re all God’s children.

When I am writing these posts I have typed the phrase into a Google Image search just to see what results I get.  Sometimes I get a background picture that is useful.  I also often get surprising results.  When I typed the phrase, “We are all God’s Children” into the search bar, I discovered that a lot of people have been quoted as saying it. Dolly Parton.  Supreme Court Justice Brett Cavanaugh.  Politician JC Watts.  I wonder what they mean?

When we say, “We are all God’s children,” who is “we”?  All Christians?  Or all people everywhere? And what do we mean by “children”?  Are we simply talking about the theological principle that God is the creator, and in that sense he is the father of all?

It could be that the person making this statement is not talking at all about salvation and eternal family, but simply about the biblical teaching that all humans are created in the image of God. That is found Genesis 1:26, when God says, “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness.” 

In that sense all humans everywhere are created by God, made in his image, and therefore have equal value.  So there is a real way, and this is not just symbolic, in which we Christians can say that all humans are God’s children.  In God’s eyes we are all equally precious and valuable.  Even ISIS fighters, even child rapists, even your jerk neighbor, arrogant coworker, difficult family member or bully classmate.  Even the person across the your church sanctuary that you have a hard time with.  All are equals in God’s view.

But there is a Christian understanding of the family of God that is unique to Christian theology.  Jesus and his followers taught that there is a family of God that not everyone is a part of. 

In the Old Testament the Israelites were called the Children of God, which we saw in the Deuteronomy series.  Deuteronomy 14:1, for example, says that Israel were “the children of the Lord their God.”  But that was not a label that applied to all people at that time.  Israel had a special relationship with God.  They were in a covenant relationship.

In the New Testament we read that God has entered into a new covenant with the church, and thus God created a new family identity that people can be a part of.  But again, not all humans are automatically a part of this new family.

In John 1:1-14, John uses symbolic language to describe Jesus.  First he calls Jesus “The Word” and then he calls Jesus “The Light.”  Notice what John says in verse 7.  He says that John, and here he is talking about another John, John the Baptist, came to testify concerning this light, so that through the Light “all men might believe.”  That is key.  John is beginning to describe the new family. Clearly God wants all humanity to be a part of it. 

As the discussion continues, John says that the Light gives light to every man.  There again, it is for all humanity.  Every man.  And then in verses 10-11, John tells us that Jesus came into the world, to his own. Who were his own?  They are his original people, the people of Israel, the people with whom God had a covenant, just as we saw in Deuteronomy.  But there is a problem: those people, his family, the Jews, did not receive him, John tells us.  Thus God decided to create a new family, and a new way to become part of the family. 

Look at verses 12-13. John says that though the Jews did not receive Jesus, it is still possible to receive him and believe in him, and become part of his family.  We can become children of God.  Clearly John says that this new family is not about human genetics, or natural childbirth. The Old Covenant was like that.  You were a part of the Old Covenant as a Jew because you were genetically Jewish.  In the New Covenant, anyone can be part of God’s family, anyone can become a child of God, by receiving and believing in Jesus. 

One biblical metaphor for this is adoption.  We can be adopted into God’s family.  I’ve been at three adoption ceremonies over the last few years, and they are amazing.  There is incredible joy when a child becomes part of a family!  I sat in the courtroom three times just weeping with gratefulness.  That is what God has done for us! 

So let me reiterate.  God loves all.  Consider John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Also consider what Paul taught in 1 Timothy 2:4, that God wants all to be saved.  That 1 Timothy passage is so interesting because of its larger context.  In verse 1 he urges Christians to pray for and give thanksgiving for all people, even for kings and all those in authority.  Who was the king in authority when Paul wrote this?  The emperor Nero, who savagely persecuted Christians.  If you ever think that you can’t stand leaders in our country or other countries, imagine living in a country where the leader butchers Christians.  Pray for him?  Yup, Paul, says, because God desires that all would be saved!  Even those we hate.

But will all be saved?  We hold to the traditional teaching (as found in the EC Articles of Faith) of eternal destiny, that not all will be saved.  But God has loved us enough to make a way to be adopted into his family.  He has made a choice available.  The way to be saved came at the great cost of Jesus’ becoming one of us, giving his life for us.  So God shows us that he desperately wants us to be a part of his family. 

I recently heard a story about a man who grew up Muslim in Europe.  He said that he had a dream where Jesus came to him and called him to follow Jesus.  The man decided to follow Jesus.  You need to know the ramifications of that.  This man’s choice to follow Jesus meant that while he was becoming part of God’s family, he faced being shunned and threatened by his own earthly family.  But he received Jesus, believed in him, and followed Jesus.  He went on to start something like a hundred Christian churches, so that more people could be part of God’s family. 

But not all will choose to be adopted into God’s family.

Therefore, my conclusion about this phrase it that it needs some explaining: We are all God’s children, as he is creator of all, but all humans are not a part of the family of God that is the church. 

We’ve talked about receiving Jesus and believing in him, and that leads us to our next phrase.

What is “The Sinner’s Prayer”?  Some Christians have said that we need people to pray this prayer so that they can become part of God’s family.

I’ve heard it called the ABC prayer:  A – Admit that you are a sinner.  B – Believe that Jesus died and rose again to pay the penalty of our sin.  And C – Confess your faith in Jesus.  This is also sometimes connected to verses in Scripture, particularly in the letter to the Romans, called The Roman Road.  The letter A is supported by Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  The letter B is supported by Romans 5:8, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  And the letter C is supported by Romans 10:9-10, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

So it sounds good, but is the Sinner’s Prayer in the Bible?  No. 

Wait. No?  How can you say, No, Joel? You just read all those verses from Romans that show it is in the Bible? 

Let me explain.  The ABC Prayer is not in the Bible, and it was created as a way to give people a method for starting a relationship with Jesus.  It is very easy to understand, and thus some have said that it is good for kids.  That very well may be true.  We should not, however, give kids or anyone, a false idea that all God wants them to do is say a prayer.  The Sinner’s Prayer might actually give them the wrong idea, as if God wants us to say certain words. 

So what does God want?  Is there one specific way that people come to follow and believe in Jesus?  No.  People through the ages have come to Christ in so many ways.  That is okay.  In the Bible we see many different ways that people come to believe in and follow God.  There is no one way.

I recently read the story of James Bryan Smith who, after reading a book by CS Lewis, came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and decided to follow Jesus.  He and his friends started reading the Gospels, and as a result their lives were changing.  Several of their friends also became Christians.

Then Smith met a guy in a college campus ministry who asked Smith if he ever prayed the Sinner’s Prayer.  He said he never heard of it.  The campus minister was aghast, and responded, “Well, then, you are not saved and doomed to hell.”  Smith explained how he had been reading the Gospels, how his life was changing and how he was interacting with Jesus every day. The campus minister said, “Nice story, but if you die tonight, you would go to hell.” 

Smith believed the campus minister, and prayed the prayer, and it seemed to him that this version of the Jesus story was all over the place.  It was a story of “rotten sinners, an angry God, a sacrificial Son, and the constant battle to make it to heaven in the end.”  One day, he says, he came to the realization that he hated being a Christian.  Clearly the Sinner’s Prayer was detrimental to Smith. I would suggest that it has been likewise for many others, misleading them about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus.

So if it is not a Sinner’s Prayer, where can we go in the Bible to guide into understanding what it means to begin a relationship with Jesus?

I would recommend that we look at Jesus, and his approach to the disciples.  Remember how he started his relationship with them?  He said two words: “Follow me.”  That was it.  The concept of “believe in me” was a part of his teaching to the disciples, as we see that especially in the Gospel of John.  The disciples’ true belief in Jesus, however, only came after the resurrection.  Three years of ministry later! 

Think about it.  Through the three years they followed Jesus, during which time they were doing all the work of ministry: healing, exorcism, preaching, but they still didn’t fully believe.  How do we know this?  Because when the end came, at his arrest in the Garden, what do we see?  Judas betrayed him, Peter, the leader who boldly proclaimed belief just a few hours before, ended up denying him three times, and all the rest ran away in fear.  It was after Jesus’ resurrection when their belief was solidified, and they never turned back, even giving their lives sacrificially to follow him.  What that means is that for the disciples, following Jesus came first, believing in him came second.

We so often have it the other way around.  Smith said this: “The central question of the gospel is not how can I be saved, but who is Jesus?  Your relationship to Jesus unleashes redemptive power.  I hear people say, ‘We need to get people to make a commitment to Jesus.’ My response always is, ‘We need to get people to know Jesus.’  If they come to know Jesus, in his beauty, goodness and truth, they will naturally make a commitment to him.”

We don’t need people to pray the Sinner’s Prayer, we need to get them to learn who Jesus truly is.  Smith again summarizes Jesus’ mission in a way that I find so compelling: “The Christian story is not primarily about how God in Jesus came to rescue sinners from some impending disaster.  It is about God’s work of initiating us into a fellowship and making us true conversation partners with the Father and the Son through the Spirit, and hence with each other.” 

In other words, there are many ways to come to Jesus, and one way is not better than the other.  It could be a Sinner’s Prayer moment in Sunday School. But it could also be through dreams.  For some it is a slow life-long process of parents and churches investing in their kids.

Do we need a specific date that we prayed a prayer?  No.  Do we need specific words of prayer?  No. 

We can place too much emphasis on a prayer, date, event.  But maybe you’re wondering, what about the needed emphasis on evidence of a real relationship?  Jesus once taught, “By your fruit you will know them.”  What he meant was that a real relationship with Jesus will be evidenced by what comes out of our lives.  You know it is an apple tree because it has apples growing out of it.  As Paul said in Galatians 5, walk in the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit will come out of your life.

What does that mean?  Walk in the Spirit? Well, it relates to the next phrase we are fact-checking.

Turn to Ephesians 3:16-17 and you’ll read Paul say, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

There it is. This phrase is right out of the Bible. But what is this talking about?  Our actual heart?  Our blood pumper? 

No.  The heart is symbol for the center of our will and emotion.

What this means is that Jesus with us.  This idea pops up in many places in Scripture:

John 14:23 – If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

Romans 5:5 – And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

But what does this mean?  In what way does Jesus live in us?  It is a strange concept to think about Jesus being in our hearts, so this phrase needs some explaining.

Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 6 that our body is the Temple of Spirit.  In the Old Covenant, the presence of God resided in a physical building, the tabernacle, and then eventually the temple in Jerusalem.  But in the New Covenant, God’s Spirit resides in us. 

God no longer resides in a building! 

Think about that.  God, through his Spirit, wants to live with you!  Amazing, isn’t it.  God created us to have fellowship with him and wants to be so close to us.  He loves us, and went to such great lengths to be with us.  “God with us” means that he wants to make his home with us for the purpose of human flourishing.

It is vital for us, then, to learn to walk in step with the Holy Spirit who lives with us.  How often do you think about the Holy Spirit throughout the day?  What could it look like for you to talk with him, listen to him, allowing him to shape you more and more to look like Jesus when Jesus lived on earth?  It means we must give attention to our lives, our choices, our thoughts.  We must give time to practice developing our relationship with God. 

There are habits and practices that we can add to our lives to grow our relationship with God. I would encourage to search this blog for posts like this one that talk about spiritual practices.

Now we have come to the final phrase we’re fact-checking, and it relates to our relationship with God after death. 

This is expressed so often in the context of grief, such as loss of a loved one.  It sounds like a sweet statement.  But at deeper glance, this one has some concerns.

First of all, it can make God the bad guy for taking a life. “Heaven needed?”  It seems to say that the person who passed away is now serving a higher purpose.  But does God take people out of their earthly existence because they are needed in heaven?   There is no biblical teaching to support this idea, and it is dangerous to depict God that way. 

But what about the rest of the phrase?  Do humans turn into angels when we die?  What is the biblical teaching on angels?

Angels are super popular in our culture.  Hebrews 1:14 gives maybe the best description: “they are ministering spirits sent to serve those (us) who inherit salvation.”  Throughout the Bible, angels are messengers.  Psalm 91:11 is where we get the idea of angels protecting humans.  Psalm 34:7 is another similar reference.  But I would strongly caution us to avoid the idea of individual guardian angels, as if we have an angel assigned specifically to us.  The psalms are poetic, and that means they use symbolic or figurative language that should not be interpreted as teaching scientific fact.

In my opinion, this is not a major point of theology, and as a result, it is one that I do not hold with a tight grip.  The angelic realm is just too mysterious in biblical teaching, I think, for us to be certain of much.  So please know I don’t mean to come across as dogmatic.

So back to the phrase we are fact-checking.  It raises another question: what does happen when we die?

Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christians who die will be given new bodies.  But those new spiritual bodies are not the same as angels.  Quite frankly we don’t precisely how a human spiritual body might differ from an angelic body.  What we do know is that angels and humans are different creations. 

Humans who die and are given new spiritual bodies, however, are still humans. 

My conclusion is that the phrase “heaven must have needed another angel” is not true, if the person saying the phrase means that humans transform into angels.  If the person saying the phrase means “angel” in the symbolic sense, though, referring to humans who are in heaven, then that is totally in keeping with biblical teaching.

I think that a better question to consider is: What should we say when people are experiencing grief?

The reality is that in moments of grief, when we don’t know what to say, but we think we have to say something, what comes out can be word vomit.  In those moments we can utter really bad theology.  What we should do is say nothing and just hug them and express our love and concerns. 

I recently heard an interview of the man who has handled settlements for many of our national tragedies.  After 9/11, he was responsible to divvy out money to families that had lost loved ones.  As he met with families, one time he tried to express empathy, and said “I know what you are going through.”  The family looked back at him across the desk, and said, “You have no idea what we’re going through.”  He never said that again.

Our hearts are in the right place when we are counseling people in their time of grief, and we so desperately want to make it better.  But we need to use self-control and not just let words out.  Also when you are the one grieving, and people say ridiculous stuff to you, I know it is hard in that moment of pain, but we can be gracious to them, and remember that they are just trying to help. 

Remember that grief takes time, and is unique to each situation. So when it comes to salvation and the afterlife, we can praise God that he has made a way for us to be in his family.  Let us be a people that warmly, graciously invite people to get to know Jesus.

God doesn’t expect that much from me? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 5]

29 Mar
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

How much does God expect from us, really?

It is very tempting to think, “God does not expect that much from me,”  when you know you are so thoroughly loved by God, so thoroughly forgiven, and in fact rightfully believing that there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation. We can almost theologically justify “God does not expect that much from me,” by saying that we are saved by grace through faith not by works. 

But that would be an improper way to live out the theology of grace.  Let me say clearly that this phrase is right only when it comes to our salvation.  It is true that God expects nothing from us in that sense, because Jesus did all the work salvation required through his birth, life, death and resurrection.  Only he could do that.  We could not. 

But our response, James says in James 2, is to have a faith that works in thankful gratitude for God’s grace.  Paul said the same thing in Titus 2:11 when he said “Grace teaches us to say, ‘No’ to unholiness and pursue a righteous life.” (my paraphrase)

Jesus also taught that God expects everything from us.   He told his disciples, “Die to yourself, and follow me.”  There is only one way to follow Jesus, and it is by giving your life completely to follow him.  Believing is not even close to enough.

Jesus told the rich young man, “Sell all you have, and give it to the poor.” Yet how many of us, upon hearing Jesus teach like this, think to ourselves, “Well…he doesn’t really mean that, does he?”

Sojourners magazine recently ran an article about wealthy Christians in the midst of so many in need.  The author talked about how Christians know there are people struggling with homelessness, for example, and yet we rarely give up our vacations or our hobbies in order to make a difference.

In the Deuteronomy series we talked about how Old Testament Law is not binding on Christians.  Consider how that relates to the practice of generosity. We Christians might say, “Whew…I’m glad I’m not bound to the Old Testament Law, so I don’t have to tithe like ancient Israel did…I don’t have to give to 10%!” 

But if you look at the New Testament teaching on giving, it is way more sacrificial than 10%.  In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul teaches the Christians to give generously, sacrificially, consistently and cheerfully.

And it is not just money.  It is about our whole lives.  Jesus lays claim to our entire lives, including our bodies. 

“You are not your own,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You were bought with a price, so glorify God with your body.”

God’s desires for Christians is that we will give all to him.  All means all.  That might sound scary or too difficult.  But remember that God has your best interest in mind.  His ways are far superior to our ways.  Are we willing to trust him with our lives?  Go all in.

So as we fact-check this one, God doesn’t expect you to do anything to save yourself, but as a follower of Jesus, he expects you to give everything.