To Be Saved

The question of the ages: “What must I do to be saved?” (Ac 16:30) has a straightforward answer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (31) Salvation isn’t complicated; little children can get this.

Yet, as simple as this is, we may miss it by changing believe on Jesus for something else. For example, we could say as Billy Graham did, believing on Jesus means repenting of our sins, asking Christ to come into our hearts and save us, and committing our lives to serve Him.

Just one little problem: no one in the Bible was saved like this, and in the end it didn’t even work for Dr. Graham himself (he had no assurance of Heaven). With the world ablaze in the wrath of God (Ro 1:18) and nowhere to hide (Re 20:11), we can’t afford to get this wrong.

To help us understand, God describes believing on Christ from multiple angles. It’s receiving Christ as He claimed to be (Jn 1:12a), believing on His name (b) … totally convinced He will do as He says He will do (Ro 4:21), that He’s trustworthy and perfectly good. (Ep 1:13) It means entering into His rest (He 4:3), ceasing from dependence upon our own works to gain acceptance with God (10), trusting implicitly in the finished work of Christ for our redemption (1Th 1:4-5a), the total payment of our sin debt to God. (Is 53:11)

God says we must be born again (Jn 3:7), conceived by God (Ja 1:18), quickened by the Holy Spirit (Ep 2:5), made a new creation. (Ga 6:15) We’re saved by grace through faith (Ep 2:8), supernatural confidence that only comes from the enabling power of God. This is a miracle, not a human work (Jn 1:13); only God can do this, with Man it’s impossible. (Mk 10:27)

So, if we don’t have supernatural assurance in the finished work of Christ, resting confidently in Him as our only hope of eternal salvation, trusting Him and believing in Him as He has called us to, knowing we are as safe from the wrath of God as Jesus Christ Himself, this then is our greatest need. Let us not go back to a memory of praying to receive Christ, or pray again to receive Him now, but let us look to the cross itself (1Co 2:2), asking God to reveal the Lamb of God to us (Jn 1:29), to give us faith in His blood. (Ro 3:25) Let us seek the Lord until we find Him (He 11:6), striving to enter the narrow gate, until we know He has borne our sins in His own body on the tree, and has set us eternally right with God. (1Pe 2:24)

Give diligence to make your calling and election sure – we cannot accept “not sure” for an answer. (2Pe 1:10) His death is available to us all (2Co 5:15) that we may know for certain that we have eternal life. (1Jn 5:13)

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Lay Hold

Paul tells Timothy, an earnest Christian, to lay hold on eternal life (1Ti 6:12), and to encourage others to do the same. (vs 17-19) Why should we do this, lay hold on eternal life, if we know we already have eternal life? (1Jn 5:13) Why lay hold on what we can never lose? (2Ti 4:18)

For one, it’s exceedingly unwise to presume we have eternal salvation unless our lives are consistently reflecting this reality (He 6:9), proving it experientially (2Co 13:5), as we’re earnestly pursuing the living God (Php 3:12), to know Him more deeply, to obey Him more consistently, and to love Him more passionately. (2Pe 1:5-7) Those who are complacent in their walk with God, comfortable in this world and focused on it, are actually enemies of the cross, headed for destruction. (Php 3:18-19)

It’s good for us to intentionally and firmly grasp the salvation of God (Mt 11:12), to strive to enter the kingdom (Lk 13:24), to cleave to God and His redemption as our only hope, the precious anchor of our souls. (He 6:19) Our old man takes for granted the infinite mercy shown us in Christ, the incomprehensible price paid for our redemption (Ro 8:32), forgets we’ve been purged from our old sins, loses sight and perspective, and would pull us back into dullness and blindness. (2Pe 1:8-9)

Laying hold of eternal life is laying hold of Christ Himself: He is our life. (Col 3:4) It’s abiding in Him (Jn 15:4), partaking of Him (He 3:14), grounding ourselves in the promises and nature of God (Ep 3:17-19), continually reminding ourselves of His way and word. (Col 3:16) Those who won’t abide in Christ are trodden down (Ps 119:118) and cast away. (Jn 15:6)

Ultimately, laying hold of eternal life is letting go of everything else (Php 3:7-8) that we may know Him. (Jn 17:3)

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According to Our Works

In one sense, there are only two eternal destinations: Heaven and Hell, no third option. (Mt 25:46) So the chosen strive to enter Heaven (Lk 13:24), seeking the Lord for eternal salvation until they have it. (He 11:6) We can’t afford to get this wrong. (Mt 16:26)

But this dual nature of eternity can be misleading; in only two possible general outcomes, we might fail to see the many possibilities within each one: there’s surely joy in every heavenly place (Jud 24), and sorrow throughout Hell, but some heavenly states are much more desirable than others (Mt 5:19), and some hellish places far worse than others. (Mt 11:24)

Scripture is clear that we’ll all be recompensed based on our behavior; those who’ve done good will be resurrected to life, and those who’ve done evil will be raised unto damnation. (Jn 5:28-29) It isn’t that we can earn salvation by being good, but those who know God love Him (1Pe 2:7), and do their best to please Him. All the saints will receive a reward (2Ti 4:8), yet some of us serve God better than others, and will get a better reward for our labor; it makes a difference how we live.

Christ will repay each and every one of us according to our works (Mt 16:27); so, as there are degrees of good and evil, there will also be degrees of rewards (Mt 5:19) and punishments. (Lk 12:47-48a)

To the degree that our works are deficient, corrupt, tainted with wrong motives, even as believers in Heaven we suffer loss. (1Co 3:13-15) And if we’re actually despising the truth, headed for Hell (Ro 2:8), we’d be much better off if we’d never known the truth at all. (2Pe 2:21)

The boundaries of both Heaven and Hell lie in the infinitude of God Himself. His fury can address the deepest depravity, of Satan himself, and His delight the purest heart, that of Christ Himself. He is capable of giving the saints more than the very best of us can possibly fathom or enjoy (1Co 2:9), and is able to crush His enemies (Lk 20:18) with a fierceness and indignation that even the most rebellious heart cannot endure. (Na 1:6)

Though we aren’t saved by works (Ep 2:8-9), how we live each day does make an eternal difference (Mt 10:42); whatever we sow we reap (Ga 6:7); the more we sow the more we reap, whether for good or evil. Every single choice is thus an eternal one.

Run for a reward in God (1Co 9:26); He calls us to run that we may obtain (1Co 9:24), so run with all your might — for this reward is God Himself. (Ge 15:1, Php 3:8)

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Children of Wrath

It’s a privilege to grow up in a Christian environment, and be taught the Word of God as a child. (2Ti 3:15) If that’s been our heritage, we should be grateful, yet not presume we’ve always been a child of God because of this.

We all start out dead to God (Ep 2:1), seeking our own way and will (Tit 3:3), blind in our ignorance, alienated from God’s life (Ep 4:18) and under His wrath. (Ep 2:3) We may not seem as bad as those from more broken backgrounds, but measuring sin as the world does is unwise at best: in our selfishness and pride we’ve all been an abomination to God. (Pr 16:5)

So, God says we must each be born again (Jn 3:7), born anew, each and every one of us; in order to enter Heaven, at some point we must be converted (Mt 18:3), regenerated, made alive. (Ep 2:5).

It isn’t that we must know the exact day and hour we came to Christ, any more than we’d know exactly when we were born physically if no one told us. But the significance of the new birth, requiring that we understand the basics of the gospel and trust God for eternal salvation, and the radical inward transformation that always accompanies this miracle of God (Jn 1:13), suggest we’ll know the general time period, and distinctly remember experiencing assurance of salvation as we began our faith journey. (1Th 1:5)

Thinking we’re Christians simply because our parents were, or because they had us baptized, is to ignore our need for personal salvation and regeneration. There’s no guarantee of heaven in any ritual, or in the faith of others (Ga 6:15): we must each strive to enter the kingdom (Lk 13:24), seeking God until we find Him for ourselves. (He 11:6)

We should each examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith, and prove our salvation (2Co 13:5), laying hold on eternal life (1Ti 6:12), and ensuring the evidences which accompany salvation appear in our own lives. (He 6:9)

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Turning the Grace

Grace may be the most important word in the Christian Faith. We’re saved by grace (Ep 2:8) and we stand in grace. (Ro 5:2) If we get this foundational concept wrong, we may call our theology Christian, but it may still be foreign to God, and leave us with false hope.

God exhorts us to earnestly contend for the authentic, apostolic faith (Jud 3) because false teachers promote a counterfeit Christianity by changing the definition of grace, turning it into permission to indulge, essentially denying God’s nature. (vs 4)

Grace is commonly defined to be the unmerited favor of God, the idea that we may freely enjoy the blessings of God without deserving them. Since those who receive Christ are forgiven and loved by God unconditionally, the claim is that we’re free to sin against God on purpose, that even if we sin deliberately, God will never be angry or disappointed in us: He’s taken care of our sin in Christ. In other words, defining grace this way means we can receive all the benefits of salvation merely by receiving Christ as Savior, and that receiving Him as Lord is optional.

This teaching on grace effectively turns it into a type of open-ended leniency, permission to pursue our own interests, passions, and lusts. This is what Jude calls turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, exposing those who promote this as ungodly, denying the Lordship of Christ. (Jud 4)

Routinely overlooking the willful, wrongful behavior of those we love is unhealthy at best. Claiming God is this way, and that we should be too, is foolish. God simply isn’t like this; He cares very deeply how we act, being grieved and angered by all intentional sin (He 10:26-27) This is clear in the Word, proof of His love. (Re 3:19)

The problem with the common definition of grace is that it fails to account for the miracle of the new birth, and the transforming dynamic inherent in grace. Grace isn’t freedom to sin, it’s freedom from sin (Ro 6:14); grace is God providing us a new nature (2Co 5:17) that’s inclined to obey Him. (1Pe 1:2)

Let no one deceive us (1Jn 3:7): those in Christ have received Him as He truly is, as both Savior and Lord. (Jn 1:12) Those who carelessly and willfully disobey Him as a manner of life don’t yet know Him. (1Jn 3:9)

The relentless assaults of false teachers require us to earnestly contend for the basics of godly faith as we engage each other to fight the good fight and lay hold on eternal life. (1Ti 6:12) God’s Word is unmistakably clear: those who don’t love Jesus Christ don’t belong to Him (1Co 16:22), and all who aren’t trying their best to honor and obey Him don’t love Him. (Jn 14:23)

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The Liberty

In Christ we’re free, absolutely free; He paid a great price to deliver us, so we should stand fast in that freedom, rejoice in it, and not return to bondage. (Ga 5:1) It’s like He’s given us the key to our own prison door and expects us to use it. But what exactly is freedom, and how do we walk in it?

Those who find A Scandalous Freedom (Steve Brown, 2004) in Christ, define freedom as “exemption or liberation from the control of some other person, or some arbitrary power.” (p.6) To them, freedom in Christ means we may live as we please, with no rules, constraints, expectations or obligations toward God. The claim is that we have God’s permission to do whatever we want; anything else is “a weird sort of freedom.” (p.7) Their claim is that God will love us just as much, be just as fond of us, no matter what we do, and that He will never be angry or disappointed in us. (p.14)

Yet Christ defines freedom differently, as the ability and tendency to keep God’s Law: when we break God’s law we become slaves to sin (Jn 8:34); so freedom is deliverance from the tendency and inclination to sin (Ro 7:24-25a), being given a new nature that aligns with God’s law. (He 8:10) He says, in effect, that freedom is the ability to live according to our design, and that our design is to be in right relationship with God, to love and obey Him; there’s no salvation, deliverance or freedom apart from this. (1Jn 3:7-8)

Freedom isn’t about having no master; it’s about having the right master. We all have a master: we either serve sin or we serve obedience. (Ro 6:16) Outside Christ we’re slaves to sin (vs 17), but Christ sets us free from sin to serve righteousness. (vs 18) Our new nature serves God’s law, but any lies remaining within us will always serve sin. (Ro 7:25b)

Sin always springs from a lie and takes us captive (2Ti 2:25-26); so freedom is walking in truth, for the truth makes us free. (Jn 8:32) Those who find permission in Christ to sin are simply twisting God’s grace into indulgence, missing Christ entirely. (Jud 1:4)

Lies about freedom are often rooted in a misunderstanding of grace, confusing it with leniency, mercy, and forgiveness, and thus reading related scriptures incorrectly. Grace is the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life. (Strong) Grace is the very power of God enabling us to live free of sin, to be aligned with His law. Grace is divine enablement, not unconditional forgiveness and love. So, thinking grace gives us freedom to sin is an open contradiction: it’s like freedom to be sick in our healing, or filthy in our cleansing. It is this misunderstanding of grace, turning God’s truth into a lie (Ro 1:25), which gives the half-truths of Christian “freedom” their insidious appeal.

It is true that God loves and forgives believers totally and unconditionally; there is no sin that Christ did not atone for, and He will never impute sin to any believer. (Ro 4:8) But this is only half of the truth.

The rest of the truth is that believers don’t sin, or break God’s Law (1Jn 3:4), on purpose, carelessly, negligently or presumptuously, as a manner of life. (1Jn 2:4) God has commanded us to keep His law diligently (Ps 119:4), and believers have a new nature that longs to be perfect (Ps 119:5); we actually are obedient to God (1Pe 1:2), inclined toward righteousness and holiness. (Ep 2:10)

Yet believers do sin (1Jn 1:8), missing the mark of perfection even as we try our best to obey. And when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (1Jn 2:1) So, once we have salvation we can never lose it: it is eternal. (He 5:9) But thinking this implies freedom to sin willfully and presumptuously is a gross misunderstanding of the gospel. (He 10:26-27)

As believers, we work out our deliverance from sin with fear and trembling (Php 2:13), knowing God Himself is working His grace in us according to His good pleasure. (vs 14) And He that began this good work in us will continue to perform it until the Day of Jesus Christ. (Php 1:6)

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The Gospel

Gospel means good news. In scripture, it relates to salvation (Ro 1:16): how we may be reconciled to God (Ro 5:10), delivered from both the penalty and power of our sin. (Ga 1:4)

This Gospel is revealed and enabled in the divine sacrifice, of which the Old Testament animal sacrifices are a type (Jn 1:29); through His substitutionary death on our behalf, Christ became the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1Jn 2:2) We know God is satisfied with Christ’s work because of the resurrection. (Ac 17:31)

But even with the facts of the gospel laid out in plain view, until God opens our eyes, and turns us from darkness to light (Ac 26:18), we remain blind, dead in our trespasses and sins. (Ep 2:1-3) Those who continue in doubt (He 4:1), or to pursue disobedience (1Jn 3:9), who don’t love God (1Co 16:22), who aren’t being transformed into His likeness, are like dead men walking — they haven’t believed this good news: they haven’t been reconciled to God or delivered from the power of sin. (1Jn 3:10)

When Christ came He preached this good news (Lk 20:1), but never once explicitly mentioned His death, burial or resurrection. A sinful woman found forgiveness of all of her sins in Christ through this gospel; overwhelmed in grateful tears, she loved Him intensely. (Lk 7:47)

Abraham believed the gospel when he took God at His word (Ro 4:3), that one of his descendants (Ga 3:16) would be in number as the stars, and God counted this in Abraham as perfect righteousness. (Ge 15:5-6)

King David believed this gospel, and found a place of perfect reconciliation and righteousness in God without working for it, a place where God would never again impute sin to him. (Ro 4:6)

This same gospel was also preached to unbelieving Israel in the wilderness, but it fell on deaf ears.  (He 4:2) Perhaps, as it was then, even so it is now, that very few perceive the gospel, though most of the world has heard of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, and is aware that He died for our sins.

We aren’t reconciled to God, or saved, by acknowledging a set of historical facts, or by asking God to save us and committing our lives to serve Him; this is mere religion. We can know Jesus died for the sins of the world, and that He rose again, and still not believe the gospel, the good news, such that we’re saved from the power of sin and death. (Ro 8:2)

There’s only one gospel, one version of this good news, that’s legitimate; anyone preaching any other gospel is accursed. (Ga 1:8) Christ can quicken us (Col 2:13), make us spiritually alive, and take care of our sin (1Jn_3:5), and only Christ can do this. We can’t add anything to this, or take anything away from it, and still have the gospel.

There is no ritual that enables and facilitates receiving this gospel. (Ga 6:15) Salvation comes through an actual miracle of faith, where God gives us supernatural assurance and trust that He’s taken care of our sin in Christ (1Th 1:5), fully and completely, causing us to enter into His rest (He 4:3), and begins transforming our hearts with the living Christ, giving us a new nature (Ez 36:26), His own nature (Col 1:27), enabling us to love and obey Him.

Salvation is the receiving of God Himself, the divine Person, as He is. (Jn 1:12) This is the new birth; it is the work of God, not springing from the human will (Jn 1:13), but God conceiving us through His Word. (Ja 1:18)

Very few believe the gospel and find this salvation (Mt 7:14); we should each labor to enter into this rest (He 4:11), striving to enter (Lk 13:24), diligently ensuring our own calling and election. (2Pe 1:10)

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As a Little Child

Christ tells us that to enter God’s kingdom we must receive it like a little child would. (Lk 18:17) Some manner of childlikeness is therefore intrinsic in regeneration, so it’s important to understand what this looks like: there’s no salvation without it.

Firstly, we note that God isn’t telling us to be childish (1Co 13:11), foolish (Pr 22:15), or childlike in our understanding (1Co 14:20a,c); God wants us to be mature in knowledge and wisdom. Rather, we’re to be as children in malice (vs 20b), not bitter, vengeful, jaded and resentful, wishing harm to others for the sake of it.

Neither are we to be voluntarily weak and vulnerable, inappropriately dependent on others. God commands us to be poor in spirit (Mt 5:3), not spiritually self-sufficient (2Co 3:5), but He also commands us to be strong (1Co 16:13)

Godly childlikeness seems to be primarily in the context of humility: small children don’t tend to think too highly of themselves. (Mt 18:4) They’re not preoccupied with status, with how they stack up against others, or in feeling certain tasks are beneath them. They aren’t envious or bitter.

Further, small children are generally very teachable, curious, wanting to learn, grow and understand. (1Pe 2:2) They tend to trust what adults tell them, depending on those who are older and wiser to guide and protect them. This isn’t the same as being gullible (Pr 14:15); children aren’t capable of understanding the world well enough to navigate it wisely (Lk 2:52), so they’re involuntarily dependent and vulnerable. (Mt 18:6) They aren’t locked into preconceived biases which blind them to the truth when they hear it. They are, in a sense, strong in faith. This is how we’re to respond to God, as a little child trusts a loving parent: God is infinitely beyond us in power and knowledge, so we should trust what He says implicitly, and without reservation.

Small children tend to repent when appropriately corrected, and to try to please those in authority when consistently and lovingly disciplined. Their hearts aren’t hard; they enjoy being loved and cared for, being in relationship with their father, being close to him and nurtured by him. Similarly, regeneration produces in us an obedient heart (1Pe 1:2), one that readily yields to correction and seeks to serve and obey our Heavenly Father.

Unless we’re transformed, and become as little children, we won’t enter His kingdom. (Mt 18:3) We must find God at work in us, transforming us in humility and holiness such that we’re unassuming, trusting in the goodness of our Father, not pretending to be worthy of the gift, simply joyful and grateful.

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Save with Fear

Modern Evangelical Christians have dramatically shifted emphasis in presenting the Gospel, away from hellfire and brimstone as in earlier days, to focus almost entirely on God’s love.

The love of God is amazing, for sure, certainly less offensive than Hell fire; to comprehend it is to be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ep 3:19) But is this a good move? In other words, is this shift in focus a biblical one, or might it tend toward compromise, lukewarmness, and spiritual decay?

Putting it another way, should the unregenerate, those who don’t already deeply love Jesus Christ (1Co 16:22), be encouraged to meditate on God’s love? Or is this a topic which should generally be reserved for committed Christians?

If we consider the biblical emphasis, God’s universal love for Man is only explicitly highlighted twice in all of Scripture (Jn 3:16, Tit 3:4); entire gospel accounts – written to introduce the life and ministry of Christ to the world – don’t mention it, nether does the inspired history of the early Church, in showing us how to spread the Gospel to the nations.

However, the wrath of God is made plain several hundred times throughout the Word, and repeatedly emphasized by Christ Himself in the Gospels. John the Baptist introduces Christ by preaching repentance (Mt 3:2) and warning of eternal fire. (Mt 3:12) Paul is mindful of the terror of God as he’s persuading men (2Co 5:11), acutely aware that those who don’t know God are in real, eternal danger. (Php 3:18) Jude advises us to make an exception for certain kinds of people, compassionately entreating them with gentleness (22), but to generally use fear as a primary motivation in our witness. (23) Why might this be?

Telling those who don’t fear God how much He loves them isn’t actually a very loving thing to do; it tends to downplay the imminent danger they’re in, how urgently they must repent and turn to God. By the fear of the Lord we depart from evil (Pr 16:6); this is the first step in seeking God. (Is 55:7) Unless a lost soul is seriously going after God, seeking Him with all their heart (Je 29:13) and striving to enter the kingdom (Lk 13:24), they’re actually hardening their heart. (He 4:7) Focusing on love is simply inappropriate here.

As we prayerfully encourage souls to pursue the living God (Da 12:3), we must do so in love, being mindful of their peril, yet using discernment in how we engage. (Mt_7:6) Anyone in the West already has sufficient access to salvation truth to find God if they want to; shoving it in their face may actually do more harm than good. (2Pe 2:21) Christ only offers the gospel to those who are humbly seeking it (Lk 10:21), and the Apostle Paul does the same. (Act 17:31)

Let’s soberly contemplate the eternal, fiery torment of lost souls as we engage them in our witness. (He 10:31) May God melt our hearts until sinners feel our trembling (Php 2:12) and our tears (Ac 20:31), as God reaches out to them through us. (2Co 5:19) Our Lord, Man of sorrows (Is 53:3), lives in us, calling us to follow His steps. (1Pe 2:21)

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Far From the Wicked

Some people are far away from the kingdom of God (Ps 73:27), and some are not. (Mk 12:34) What’s the difference?

Salvation is far from the wicked, because they’re not seeking God’s statutes. (Ps 119:155) They’re at enmity with God because they aren’t subject to His Law (Ro 8:7); their very nature opposes it. (Je 13:23)

Thinking we’re saved, or that we even want to be saved while we’re committed to sin is a contradiction; salvation is from sin (Mt 1:21), not in sin. (Ro 6:1-2) If we intend to sin and are unconcerned about it, we don’t want to be saved from sin at all — just from the consequences.

Coming to God implies wanting to obey Him, desiring to be aligned with Him, to live in intimate fellowship with Him (Jn 14:21); there’s no salvation apart from this. (He 12:14) Regenerate souls delight in God’s Law (Ro 7:22); we keep it as well as we can (Ps 119:94), and ask God to quicken us so we can obey the rest. (Ps 119:35-37)

Spiritual life produces obedience (1Pe 1:2) in those who are God’s workmanship (Ep 2:10); those who hope in God’s salvation do His commandments  (Ps 119:166), obeying unto the transformation of their souls. (Ps 19:7) This is how we identify the children of God. (1Jn 3:10)

Let no one deceive us here (1Jn 3:7-8): unless we repent and turn away from our sin to God we perish. (Lk 13:3) Those who are willfully disobeying or neglecting any part of God’s Law as a manner of life, who know better, have no hope of eternal life (1Jn 3:6); they’re self-deceived (Ja 1:22) and will be trodden down by God. (Ps 119:118) Those who are neglecting Torah wouldn’t seek God even if someone came back from the dead to persuade them. (Lk 16:31)

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