A Matter of the Heart

We remember this heartwarming revelation: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son …” (Jn 3:16). This is a statement that expresses the heart of God. It is a statement of the centrality of the gospel of grace.

Unfortunately, we often do not fully comprehend the biblical definition of the heart in reference to both God and man. We are prejudiced by our emotions. We stumble over our intellect. In response to the gospel on the day of Pentecost, the three thousand were “cut to the heart” (At 2:37). There was something that was said by the apostles that cut right to the heart of the people. It was the gospel message, but we want to understand why three thousand people in one day responded so emphatically to the gospel in a matter of hours.

We unfortunately assume that the three thousand were “cut to their emotions.” But the text says “heart,” not emotions. There are some who suppose that in response to the gospel, there were people who started jumping up and down, falling on the ground, or started speaking in tongues of gibberish. But this is reading our wrong emotional behavior into the text of what actually happened.

What happened on that glorious day was that the “John 3:16 heart” of God was first proclaimed in history. This revelation of God’s love through Jesus cut to the heart of those who heard the gospel for the first time. When they heard that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,” there was an overwhelming response on their part to the offering of God on behalf of their spiritual needs in order that they have an eternal relationship with Him. It was a heart wrenching revelation that caused a “heart wrenching” response.   The gospel was more than an event, and the response was more than obedience to law or emotional chaos.

The gospel reaches right to our hearts.   There are some very important things we must understand in order to understand better how God’s revelation of His heart on the cross touched the hearts men. When Peter and the apostles proclaimed the gospel for the first time in history, they dealt with the “mind” of man. Facts and events were conveyed to the people.

But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice and said to them, “You men of Judea and all you who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words(At 2:14).

Information concerning the event of the gospel was imparted to the minds of those who were present (See At 2:15-36). When the facts and events about the prophecies, incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection were concluded, Peter reminded the attentive audience, “Therefore, let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this same Jesus whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (At 2:36).

The people knew all the background that led up to this statement. They knew the all prophecies. They knew the prophecies concerning the Messiah being seated on the throne of David.   Add to this the fact that they also concluded that it was futile to seek justification before God through law.   They had also concluded that sins before God could not find atonement in animal blood. They assumed, according to what they understood from prophecy, that something, or Someone, must deal with their sin problem and separation from God (Is 59:2).

Add to this the fact that the Jews had little understanding of the resurrection. In fact, the Sadducees even denied the resurrection (At 23:8).   But in hearing the good news, and in reasoning that the body of Jesus had not been stolen away by the disciples as the religious leaders asserted (Mt 28:11-15), but was actually raised from the dead, then the people began to respond with their hearts.

The gospel of the cross and resurrection triggered their hearts because of what they already knew from centuries of studying the Law and the Prophets. At the same time, they judged themselves guilty of a lifetime of uncleansed sin.   And besides this, many of them had encouraged the crucifixion of the innocent One seven weeks before. They stood there before the apostles condemned with sin and guilt. And for this reason, the heart of God that was revealed on the cross penetrated right to their own hearts. The following statement was actually a plea for help: “Men and brethren, what will we do?” (At 2:37).

This was not a plea for another set of rules by which they might legally obey in order to rectify their sin before God.   They had tried that approach for a relationship with God for centuries, but to no avail. They knew that they were lawbreakers living in the frustration of their own fallibility.

Concerning their spiritual situation, Paul made the following statement many years later:

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us, that denying ungodliness and worldly lust, we should live sensibly, righteously and godly in this present age … (Ti 2:12,13).

This is what happened on the first memorial Sunday of this dispensation of time. The “grace of God that brings salvation” appeared on the cross and was announced on Pentecost (Ti 2:11). It was a grace that appeared while the Pentecost audience was still in sin.   They were undeserving of the only begotten Son of God. Nevertheless, “God demonstrates His love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8). Herein is revealed the heart of God.

Three thousand people stood stunned in the audience when this gospel message was first announced on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30. The action of the incarnation, cross and resurrection was the heart of God that was revealed to those who had lost heart in justifying themselves before the God. And since they confessed to the futility of their own efforts to make themselves right before God, their hearts were touched by what God had done for them. The result of the message was that the three thousand relinquished to the heart of God that was revealed through the gospel.

Grace was revealed, and clearly understood.   There needed to be no delay in a response. The response of about three thousand happened in the same day. In some cases in the first century, the response happened in the same hour of the night (At 16:33).

Peter and the apostles thus communicated the events surrounding the gospel to the minds of all those who were present on the day of Pentecost. The response of the people also involved their emotions. However, in their emotional response to the revelation of the heart of God on the cross, they were not justified. If they were justified by their emotional response (belief in the gospel event), then their justification would have depended on their emotions. Again, they would have created a self-imposed religiosity that was dependent on human emotions, but short of all that which had to be done in order to restore their relationship with God.   They were burdened with sin that continued to keep them separated from God.

The effect of the gospel is not enacted solely by emotions, or belief that stirs emotions. It is obediently enacted by our emotional response to our knowledge of the action of God through the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God. We must not forget that the three thousand asked what they should “do.” Belief and emotions had brought them to the brink of salvation, but their emotional response needed a God-given answer in order that they come into Christ.

In the world today this is one of the most confusing points in the religious world. It is believed that an emotional response (“believe on Jesus” or “receive Jesus”) is equated with salvation. If one would only have some emotional experience of belief in response to the heart of God that was revealed on the cross, it is supposed that one can justify himself before God. Emotional responses thus become the only condition for salvation. If this were true, then it would place us right back into the condition from which we seek to be delivered through the gospel, that is, deliverance from our own self-centered religiosity.

Emotional experiential religion falls into the same category as “self-made” religiosity by which some in Colosse and Galatia supposed they could be justified before God. Both systems of religion, however, are meritorious. The experientialist is basing his faith, and thus save himself, on the merit of an emotional experience. Likewise, the legalist bases his faith on, and thus save himself, on the meritorious obedience to an outline of laws. Both systems are legal and inadequate for the remission of sins that keep one separated from God.

The experientialist makes his emotions a legal requirement for self-justification; the legalist makes his performance of law a legal requirement for the same self-justification. Unfortunately, the adherents to both systems of religion become self-appointed judges of one another and others. The experientialist judges his fellow adherents of not being on a higher level of spirituality because he or she has not “spoken in tongues,” or had some other hysterical outburst of emotionality. The legalist judges his fellow adherent of not being “faithful” because he supposedly does not conform to a legal chart that explains steps that one must take in order to be saved.

When the experientialists and legalists divide into different sects, they become judges of one another. The experientialists judge the legalists by saying that the legalists have no emotions, and their assemblies are dead.   The legalists judge the experientialists by saying that they have no respect for the law of God.   Unfortunately, both self-made religions are wrong. And on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30, the attending Jews who were in the camp of the legalists, realized that their camp was dead wrong. Law had made them spiritually dead (See Rm 7:9).

The revelation of the heart of God reaches into the mind of the legalist, who must honestly confess that through legalities, no one can stand justified before God (See Gl 2:16). The revelation of the heart of God also reaches into the emotions of the honest experientialist who confesses that after he has exhausted all his emotions, he too feels unjustified before God. Therefore, only honest hearts can respond to the revelation of the heart of God that was revealed on the cross.

The biblical definition of our heart would include our minds (intellect) and emotions, but certainly would go beyond these two aspects of our being. The Acts 2:37 passage states that the people were “cut to the heart.” Information concerning the facts of the gospel were truly given in order to reach their minds. They reasoned that what Peter revealed was true and according to prophecy.   And because the people realized that the message of the gospel was true, they emotionally responded by being “cut to the heart.”

But their request, “What must we do,” moved them beyond their emotions and minds. It moved them into action. Their minds and emotions were the foundation upon which there was motivation in their hearts to ask Peter and the apostles where they should go from their heads and emotions to be restored to a reconciled relationship with God.   They wanted to know what to do, not what to feel and think. The heart, therefore, is the basic motivation or desire of the individual to do something in response to what is learned and felt.

Because the gospel goes deeper than our heads and emotions, it generates action. When the gospel touches our hearts, we must respond with action. It is in this way that the grace of God reaches us. It is the motive that inspires a righteous response. Grace is the impetus to flee disobedience in order to please our Father. This was the substance of what Paul wrote to the disciples in Rome: “Do we then make void law through faith [in the grace of God]? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish law (Rm 3:31).

What the responding three thousand did on the day of Pentecost was to ask the apostles, “Men and brethren, what will we do?” Once their hearts were touched by the action (heart) of God on the cross (the gospel), they were really asking, “Father, what do we now do?” Peter’s instructions were in reference to “doing” that which was relevant to people whose hearts had been touched. The “do” was simply: “Repent and be baptized” (At 2:38).

Their response in baptism, therefore, was never meant to be another legality. It was to be a heart response to the revealed heart of God. In their desire to come again into a relationship with God, the Holy Spirit revealed that they had to be crucified with Christ, buried with Christ, in order to be raised with Christ (Rm 6:3-6; Gl 2:20). All this was necessary in order that they be eternally with God (2 Th 1:6-9).

Consider for a moment one who simply believes on Jesus.   He believes the gospel to the point of responding to the cross in hope of the resurrection to come. However, he may be cut short of doing all that he knows he should do in response to the gospel.

People, unfortunately, like to use hypothetical situations in order to deny obedience to the gospel in baptism. So it is supposed, as an example, that the one believed on Jesus, and then headed for the water in order to be immersed into Christ, died on the way in an automobile accident. The question is posed, Would unbaptized believer be saved? The answer would be “Yes.” We do not believe in a God who would be so calloused to condemn such a believing disciple. However, we must keep in mind that hypothetical circumstances do not determine or change that which God has instructed in order to receive the remission of sins.

Now suppose that our particular believing disciple does not search for water. Suppose the Ethiopian eunuch had simply passed by the water when he said, “See, here is water! What hinders me from being baptized” (At 8:36). If the eunuch would have passed by the opportunity to obey the gospel that he had just heard from Philip, he would have invalidated his belief.

But Philip’s response to the eunuch’s question was, “If you believe with all your heart …” (At 8:37).   Philip had preached “Jesus,” (the gospel) to the eunuch. As those on Pentecost, the eunuch believed. Philip wanted to know if his belief had penetrated to his heart. If it had, then his belief was true. The request, “What hinders me from being baptized” is the response of one who truly believed in his heart, not just in his mind. And because he truly believed, the eunuch “came up out of the water … and went on his way rejoicing” (At 8:39). There would have been no occasion for rejoicing if the eunuch had simply passed by the water.

What if the eunuch had simply passed by the opportunity to be immersed in water to wash away his sins (See At 22:16)?   Would his belief been real and from the heart? Because those on Pentecost were cut to the heart, they asked what to do. Suppose the apostles, as well as Philip, would have failed to instruct them what to do after being cut to the heart by the gospel? The point is that if a believer simply passes by the water, or some pastor/preacher fails to preach all that is involved in preaching the gospel of Jesus, including baptism, then people are left in their sins.   The one who says believes, but does not respond from the heart to all that God instructions in order to deal with our sin problem, has invalidated his belief. One can be left as a “dead man walking” with all his past sins, either through his refusal to stop the chariot and be baptized, or by being left in ignorance by some pastor/preacher who has failed to answer completely the question of the mournful, “Men and brethren, what will we do?” (At 2:37).   The mournful often allow themselves to remain with a “dead faith” that has shown no expression (See Js 2:26).

The legalist will always have a difficult time understanding this, and the “believing” experimentalist will always assume that he can perform some emotional outburst to justify himself in response to the cross. For this reason, we must go deeper into the subject in order to deal with the religious sin beneath the sin of a response to the heart of God that falls short of what Peter and the apostles instructed the mournful to do on the day of Pentecost (At 2:38).

[Next lecture in series: September 22]

Declaration of Righteousness

Paul now brings Abraham into the picture in Romans concerning our faith. “What then will we say that Abraham, our forefather, has discovered according to the [works of the] flesh? (Rm 4:1). Notice carefully how Paul words this argument: “For if Abraham was justified by works [of merit], he has something about which to boast, but not before God (Rm 4:2).

Abraham’s performance of works did not justify him before God. Justification by meritorious works never enter into Abraham’s mind. On the contrary, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness” (Rm 4:3). Abraham believed before he made the offering of his son, and because he believed, he offered his son. He was credited righteous, therefore, not because of the offering, but because of his faith.

We sometimes forget when Abraham first exercised his faith in God. Abraham’s faith was first illustrated when God called him to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldeas and go to a land he did not know. By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place that he would later receive as an inheritance, obeyed (Hb 11:8). Because of his obedience, his faith was declared. He was declared righteous before God because of his obedient faith long before God called on him to offer his son, Isaac. It is for this reason that the offering of his son was not meritorious. He had already been declared righteous before God because he obeyed to follow God’s command to leave his homeland and go to a land that his descendents would eventually receive as an inheritance.   Here is the point:

 But to him who does not work [meritoriously for his own righteousness], but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly [regardless of his inability to perform flawlessly], his faith is credited for righteousness (Rm 4:5).

Abraham, and all those of whom he is the father of faith, are the blessed “man to whom God credits righteousness without works [of merit] (Rm 4:6). Because of his obedient faith, Abraham was credited with the righteousness of God before he obeyed the command of God to offer his son.

Abraham was a Gentile, and thus as an uncircumcised Gentile, he became the father of all who would be credited righteous before God apart from law-keeping. When we obey the gospel, it is at that time that we are accredited righteous before God.   Abraham first believed, and then he obeyed to offer his son. In this way, we must first believe, and then through the offering of ourselves with Jesus on the cross we are declared righteous. We are declared righteous by God before there is any opportunity to work righteousness in our life as a Christian. As Abraham was declared righteous by the offering of his son, we are declared righteous by the offering of ourselves.

We are credited righteous as an obedient believer before we have an opportunity to do our first good work as a Christian.   This is the meaning behind what Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works …” (Ep 2:10). When our faith moves us to crucify ourselves, we are baptized into Christ in obedience to the gospel (Rm 6:3-6). It is then that we are declared righteous.

Our workmanship begins when we are already in Christ. We are not declared righteous in order to come into Christ. God worked on our behalf at the cross in order that we have the opportunity to do good works after we have obeyed the gospel. Therefore, we are not created in Christ Jesus by good works, but for good works. We are not created in Christ Jesus because of our own righteousness, but by the rightous work of God through the cross.

Because of his faith when he left Ur of the Chaldeas, Abraham was credited righteous before God, and thus was blessed to be the father of all those who would come into Christ through obedient faith.

And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith that he had while being uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are not circumcised, so that righteousness might be credited to them also (Rm 4:11).

Those who would seek to establish their own righteousness through meritorious good works have cheated themselves by working in reverse of the righteousness of God and good works that God offers. Abraham was not accredited righteous because of his obedience to the law of circumcision. He was first declared righteous before God through his faith long before the law of circumcision was given (See Gn 17). And because he was declared righteous through his demonstrated faith, he was obedient to obey also the law of circumcision.

If we seek to declare our own righteousness through meritorious works, then we have marginalized the “abundance of grace and of the gift of the righteousness” of God that we might “reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ” (Rm 5:17). We have sought to earn that which God has given as a gift. If God’s righteousness is something that it is earned, then it is no longer a gift.

Through the sin of Adam, sin was introduced into the world wherein all of us sin, and thus are spiritually separated from God (Rm 6:23). But “through the righteousness of one [Jesus Christ], the free gift came to all men to justification of life” (Rm 5:18). All men were not involuntary made sinners through the sin of Adam (Rm 5:19). If this were true, then all men would have been made involuntarily righteous through the justification of the cross.   Paul explained, “… even so through the obedience of one [Jesus] will many be made righteous” (Rm 5:19).   The passage reads “will,” not “would.”   Through the obedience of Jesus on the cross, the opportunity was made available for all those who chose to come to the Father through faith in His offer of righteousness. In order to accept the offer of the righteousness of God, therefore, we must through faith voluntarily respond to the heart of God that was nailed to the cross.

Paul wanted to make sure that his fellow Jewish Christians got the point concerning their former sinful state. In order to exemplify sin, the Sinai “law entered so that the offense might abound” (Rm 5:20). Law brought the realization of death because it exemplified the fact that we are all lawbreakers. The law was good in that it informed the Jews that they were sinners. The more the honest Jews mourned over their death in sin because they were lawbreakers, the more they hungered and thirsted after the righteousness of God that was revealed through Jesus. This explains the response of the three thousand on the A.D. 30 Pentecost.

It is in our state of mourning over our unrighteousness that we are motivated unto what Paul stated, “obedience to righteousness” (Rm 6:16). As alien sinners, we were not obedient because we were righteous. It was because we were alien sinners that we realized we were unrighteous, and by this realization we were drawn to the righteousness of God. When the alien sinner thus see the inadequacy of his own self-righteousness, he is willing to do anything that God would asked of him in order to receive His righteousness.

When one sees the righteousness of God that is offered freely at the cross, he seeks for this righteousness for which he could not attain through through his own meritorious righteousness. The revelation of the righteousness of God at the cross draws us to obedience of the gospel in baptism. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Me (Jn 12:32).   Mournful sinners are always drawn to the gospel of God’s righteousness.

When we are declared righteous because of our forgiveness of sins in baptism, this righteousness in turn becomes the impetus, or motivation, to do good works in thanksgiving to God for making us righteous before Him through the cross. When our sins are washed away in baptism, we become bondservants of righteousness (Rm 6:18). The Christian serves because of the righteousness he has received in Christ, not in order to work himself into being righteous before God. This is the difference between Christianity and religion.

Our message to the religious world that seeks to establish its own righteousness would be as Paul wrote in Romans 10:3:

For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God.

[Next lecture in series: September 20]

Romans & Righteousness

In the epistle of Romans, Paul argues against those who would seek to justify themselves before God on the basis of their own righteousness, whether in reference to law-keeping or good works.   He focuses on contrasting God’s righteousness that accompanied Jesus to the cross, with our self-righteousness by which we would earn God’s favor. In the contrast, he argues that self-righteousness cannot replace or subsidize the righteousness of God.

Paul began his argument by stating, “I am ready to preach the gospel to you also who are at Rome” (Rm 1:15).   “For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The just will live by faith’” (Rm 1:16,17).

Man’s righteousness (good deeds) cannot set aside or cancel the gospel of God’s righteousness that was revealed through the incarnational offering of the Son of God. God’s righteousness was revealed through the faith of Jesus who obediently went to the cross on our behalf (Hb 5:8). And because He was obedient, “He became the author of eternal salvation to all those who obey Him” (Hb 5:9). Through obedience, Jesus made God’s righteousness available.   It is free to those who would accept it on the foundation of their obedient faith in Him. In this way, the justified “live by faith.” They are righteous in their gospel living because of their obedient faith.

In Romans 3 Paul contrasts our unrighteousness in reference to the truth of the gospel: “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rm 3:10). And for this reason, “our unrighteousness demonstrates [manifests] the righteousness of God” (Rm 3:5). While we were yet unrighteous, God revealed His righteousness through Jesus (Rm 5:8). Our dysfunctional performance reveals that our self-righteousness is actually unrighteousness. And because our self-righteousness is always unrighteousness in the eyes of God, we are in dire need of His righteousness. It is for this reason that any of our attempts to be perfect before God on the basis of our performance of either law or our own self-righteous good works, is futile. We cannot be righteous before God on the basis of our own religiosity. The more the religionist performs his own self-righteousness in order to be justified before God, the more difficult it is for him to accept the righteousness of God.

The religionist often seeks to demonstrate his or her own righteousness through religious performances of good deeds and meritorious religious rites and ceremonies. But in reference to the law of God, we are all unrighteousness, regardless of any “trumpet blowing” righteousness that we offer to God. The more we understand our own unrighteousness, the more we will appreciate the righteousness of God that was revealed through the gospel of Jesus.

The more we seek to perform our own righteousness in order to justify ourselves, the more we are attacking the very heart of the gospel. Self-justification through the performance of self-righteous good works and religious ceremonies deny the sufficiency of the gospel. However, those who honestly understand the insufficiency of their own righteousness, will hunger and thirst after the righteousness of God that comes through the gospel of God’s grace.

So what will we do in reference to our inability to perform law perfectly in order to declare our own righteousness before God?   The answer is that we cannot, and thus, should not. Paul answered, “But now the righteousness of God without law is manifested” (Rm 3:21). He encourages everyone who would live by faith to seek “the righteousness of God that is by the faith of Jesus Christ to all those who believe, for there is no difference” (Rm 3:22).

It must be noted here in the phrase the faith of Jesus Christ,” that the article “the” is not in the Greek text. Some translators, unfortunately, have taken the liberty to add the preposition “in,” thus changing the focus of faith from Jesus to ourselves. This is an unfortunate supposition and one that actually misses the emphasis of the faith of Jesus in the Father in going to the cross on our behalf. We must not forget the statement of the Hebrew writer: “Though He was a Son, He learned obedience by the things that He suffered (Hb 5:8). Through obedient faith in the Father, Jesus went to the cross.

The addition of the article to the translation of Romans 3:22 is a supposition that weakens the intensity of the sacrifice that Jesus offered in those last hours before He was crucified. Throughout His ministry He always addressed the Father in prayer with the word, “Father.” There is only one time in His incarnate state when this changed. It was when His faith in the Father was truly revealed in His cry from the cross, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt 27:46). Herein was the faith of Jesus for us revealed. When we speak of the gospel, therefore, the faith of Christ Jesus plays a central part. Through His faith He went to the cross, and by our faith we respond to the cross.

John referred to “the faith of Jesus” when he wrote of the perseverance of the saints “who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rv 14:12). The faith of Jesus in going to the cross on our behalf was a central argument of Paul in Galatians 2 when he referred to our justification before God.   Paul placed the emphasize of our justification on Christ, “knowing that a man is not justified by works of law, but by the faith of Christ Jesus (Gl 2:16). “The faith of Christ Jesus” is the literal translation of this text, even though some translators have also here rendered the reading with the phrase “in Christ Jesus.” The preposition “in” is not in the text. In making this supposition, some translators have shifted the work of justification from Jesus to us. But the text teaches that our justification was first laid on the shoulders of Jesus, why by faith, went to the cross in order to make justification avialable to all those who would come to Him by faith. Using the word “in” would place on us the responsibility to respond to “the faith of Jesus” about which John wrote in Revelation.   We must believe “in” Jesus Christ.   However, we must not extract the faith of Jesus for enacting the gospel. We are “justified by the faith of Christ (Gl 2:16). In Christ “we have boldness and access with confidence through the faith of Him who went to the cross for us (Ep 3:12).   This is “the faith of the gospel” (Ph 1:27). Our confidence for our justification is not in ourselves, but in Him (See Ph 3:9).   The point is that our faith is in Him who justified us before the Father.

The appropriation of the righteousness of God is a spiritual partnership between Jesus and us. Through His faith in the Father, Jesus went to the cross for us.   Through our faith in Him, we accept the fact that He went there for us. “There is no difference (separation)between the faith of Jesus and our faith in reference to the availability of the righteousness of God and our salvation. Without His obedient faith, we would never have had the righteousness of God made available. Without our faith in Him, there would be no connection with the righteousness of God.

The righteousness of God in gospel living is made possible through the faith of both Jesus and ourselves. Therefore, it is a connection of faith. By His faith and our faith we are “justified freely by His [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rm 3:24). All this was for the purpose of God declaring His righteousness, not ours.   It is Jesus …

… whom God has set forth to be an atoning sacrifice by His blood through faith in order to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins in the past because of the forbearance of God (Rm 3:25).

God’s justice had to be revealed at the cross in order to declare at this time … His righteousness that He might be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus” (Rm 3:26). For this reason, the justification (righteousness) of God was applied to all people of faith of all time, both before and after the cross. In this God was declared righteous in creating those who could not live flawlessly before Him. And in the acceptance of His righteousness through faith, we partake of His righteousness.

As it would not have been just for God to create those who could not live without sin, and thus would be condemned to hell, so it would not be just for some to be involuntarily saved without obediently responding to the gospel of God’s justification through Jesus. Therefore, God is judged righteous (just) to condemn the disobedient to hell because of His offer of justification through Jesus.   At the same time, the obedient are judged righteous in order to be saved because they have responded to God’s righteousness that was offered through the cross. Our obedience to the gospel is what brings one into the realm of God’s righteousness. Through disobedience of the gospel, the one who is dead in sin will continue unto certain condemnation (2 Th 1:6-9).

Since we are justified through the righteous deed of the Father through the Son, Paul asks, “Where then is boasting [of our own righteousness] (Rm 3:27)? The answer to the question is simple and logical: “It is excluded” (Rm 3:27). We have no occasion to boast in our own self-righteousness when the righteousness of God at the cross took care of that for which we could not do for ourselves.   The religionist must remember this very important point: Self-righteous religious rites can never be used to either proclaim one’s own righteousness, or be considered a subsidy for the righteous work of God through the cross.

[Next lecture in series: September 18]

 

Righteousness of God

Young people often have a difficult time with their self-esteem. We remember those days when we always thought something was wrong with how we looked, who would accept us, and if we fit in with the crowd. We were either too skinning or too fat. Our clothes were either out of style or too ragged.   It seemed that something was always wrong that made us question so many things about how we could be accepted by others. Young people often seek to have the approval of others in order to find their worth among their friends.   Their behavior is determined by how intensely they feel about being accepted by others.

What many of us have done is that we never overcame this feeling of being accepted when we grew into adulthood. As adults we often apply the same feelings to be accepted to our relationship with our heavenly Father. Our lack of self-confidence is projected into what we feel God feels toward us. Our relationship with God, therefore, becomes a daily performance on our part to gain His approval. The unfortunate mental and spiritual consequence is that we are in a continual emotional upheaval in questioning whether God has accepted our performances for Him. We unfortunately forget that when we perform in order to be approved by God, we indirectly question the justification that we have received through Jesus on the cross. In our efforts to self-sanctify ourselves, we burden ourselves with a host of meritorious religious performances.

The beautiful thing about Christianity is that it builds self-confidence. The gospel builds our confidence in God through the cross, not in our efforts to earn His approval. When we understand that God considers us precious in His sight, then we feel a great sense of worth. When we understand that He has accepted us through Jesus, then every day of our lives is not a frustrating struggle to earn His approval. Regardless of how we may feel about ourselves, or what we perceive others think of us, God considers us valuable, so valuable that He was willing to give His Son for us. And when we understand that He injects in us His righteousness upon our obedience to the gospel, it is then that all the other nonsense of the approval ratings of the world simply vanish away.

When we finally realize the unprejudiced heart of our loving God, we make a marvelous discovery. It is a discovery that transforms our total outlook on life.   This is what God seeks to do with everyone through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through the gospel, and our obedience thereof, He gives us notice of His approval (righteousness). This is what Paul meant when he stated, “I declare to you the gospel … in which you stand (1 Co 15:1). This is the power of the gospel unto our salvation.

We can be assured that God has overlooked all those flaws that we thought were so important in our lives. When God examines our lives, He looks directly into our hearts in order that He might sanctify us through the blood of His Son.   Once we gain the confidence of His righteousness, we can truly feel that “we’re good” in our relationship with Him, and because of Him.

In order to start down this road of discovering the heart of the God who loves us, we must first know that we are not alone with our own spiritual inferiority complexes. Over two thousand years ago there was a great company of religious people who struggled with this very problem. And in only one day, the gospel changed their lives forever.

Jesus had prepared this audience that would first hear the gospel on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30. About three years before, during His ministry, He had spoken the following words to an audience of Jews who had been stuck in the mire of their own spiritual inferiority complexes in reference to self-seeking righteousness: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled (Mt 5:6).

Only when one comes to the spiritual reality of his own inability to be righteous before God through the futile efforts of keeping God’s law perfectly, and attempting to atone for sin with good works, will one mourn over his spiritual predicament. We might look at this from the viewpoint of our own lack of religious self-esteem. In other words, it is only when we feel bad enough about ourselves that we will seek for something, or Someone, who can make us feel better about ourselves in our relationship with God. We must mourn over our inability to be right before God through our own power. Only through our mourning will we begin to discover the power of the gospel of God’s righteousness. In fact, we would say that we cannot truly understand the power of the gospel unless we mourn over our hopeless predicament of trying to justify ourselves before God.

There is good news for the mournful. In the same context of the Sermon of the Mount in which Jesus made the preceding promise of being filled, He opened a door of hope. He promised that those who come to the point of mourning over their lack of spiritual self-esteem that they will be comforted (Mt 5:4). They could not be comforted in the performance of their own perfect law-keeping. This was what caused the problem. Neither could they be comforted by God accepting their own devised good works to atone for their flaws.   Religion failed them.

Jesus promised that those who would mourn over their own inability to be righteous (justified) before God, would be comforted by God. They would be comforted if they took the initiative to reach out for His righteousness (Rm 5:8). It would be the mournful, therefore, who would be filled with the righteousness of God. Those who feel despondent because of their lack of spiritual esteem must gaze into the gospel of the heart of God at the cross. It is there that one will discover the power of the gospel, and subsequently, discover the way to spiritual self-esteem.

We live in a world where “church” (religion) has failed to comfort the weary. Thousands have failed to find any comfort in institutional “church” religion, and thus they no longer show up at the altar. Many are simply frustrated in their efforts to find comfort for their problems in life through the ceremonial performances of “church services.” When we invite others to “come to church,” they think they are being invited to another religion, the very thing that many people have left.

But herein is the opportunity for the gospel of God’s heart to bring comfort. What “church” could not provide through ceremonial performances, the gospel can.   However, in order to bring the gospel to life in the lives of others, we must deconstruct the religion of our legalism and moralism. People have left the insufficiency of legal religion, or the moralism with which the religionist is accused of being hypocritical. When we understand the true nature of the gospel, that it is neither legalism, nor moral perfectionism, then others will begin see in us a righteousness that is not from us, but from God. This is the power of the gospel. When people start seeing in us grateful joy, it is then that they will start asking questions. And then we do as Peter stated: “… be ready always to give a defense [answer] to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you …” (1 Pt 3:15).

We must consider again the imputed righteousness of God that flows from the cross in order that our lives are a testimony to others concerning the power of the gospel. We must first understand that the word “righteousness” refers also to doing that which is right. We must not confuse this “right doing” with the righteousness that comes from God as a result of His justification that flows from the cross.

Our efforts to do right are always insufficient, but not insignificant. What God did right towards us was perfect through Christ. What we do right for Him is always imperfect in reference to our efforts to justify ourselves before Him. Only in understanding this can we understand what Jesus meant when He stated, “Therefore, you are to be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). His immediate disciples did not comprehend this until the revelation of the righteousness of God that was revealed at the cross.

The Greek word for “righteousness” is the same root word for “justification.” The justified are righteous before God because God has made them legally perfect regardless of their insufficient righteousness through good works. We are thus righteous before God because we have been justified through the advocacy of Jesus. In being justified, we are as if we had done all things right in the eyes of God. When we compare our imperfect self-righteousness through works and law-keeping, with God’s righteousness, our righteousness is accepted and we are presented perfect before Him on the basis of His righteousness. We are thus driven to His justification (righteousness) in order that we might stand righteous before Him. This is the gospel in which we stand (1 Co 15:1).

In Matthew 6 Jesus exhorted, “Take heed that you do not do your deeds of righteousness before men, to be seen by them” (Mt 6:1). This use of the word “righteousness” in this text is in reference to “doing that which is right,” which in this case, is doing good for others. It is here that we must be cautious in reference to the place of our righteousness (works) in reference to God’s righteousness that was declared at the cross.

Jesus admonished, “When you do good deeds, do no sound a trumpet before you …” (Mt 6:2). The word “righteousness” in this text, as in other similar passages, is a reference to good deeds that we would do for others in order to earn something. In this case, the “trumpet blowers” not only sought the glory of men, but also meritorious justification before God. This is the righteousness about which Peter spoke: “But in every nation he who fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (At 17:35). Peter was not stating that in doing our good deeds to others we are meritoriously justifying ourselves before God. If this were true, it would reverse our justification before God through His “good deed” for us through the cross. The problem with “trumpet blowing” righteousness is that we assume that the acceptance of our good deeds (righteousness) by others necessitates that these deeds are also accepted by God as atonement for our sins. This is a fatal assumption, and one that the honest and sincere person would never make.

Our righteous deeds to others do not supplement God’s deed for us at the cross. If we would conclude that God’s deed at the cross needed to be supplemented by our own deeds (righteousness), then we would be affirming that the atonement of the cross was insufficient, and thus, the gospel weak in reference to justifying us before God.

We must understand that God’s imputed righteousness (justification) at the cross is neither supplemented nor cancelled by our righteous deeds that we do for others in response to His righteousness in our lives. The fact is that the Christian does good deeds for others because of God’s good deed for him at the cross.   We do right things for others because He did right for us. This is what Peter meant in Acts 17:35. The those who fear God are those in every nation who have submitted to God.   Because they have submitted, they work righteousness (do good). They are not accepted because of their work of righteousness. They are accepted because they fear (obedience) of God.   This determines the difference between religion and gospel. Religionist would say, “I do righteousness (good deeds), therefore, I am accepted.”   But the one who obeys the gospel says, “I fear the Father, and therefore, I to good deeds” (Ep 2:10).

In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned His thoughts to the righteousness that comes from God: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness …” (Mt 6:33).   Jesus spoke here in order to contrast the self-seeking righteousness of the “trumpet blowing” religionists of His audience with the righteousness that God would give through the justification of the cross. This would be the righteousness that God would give through the offering of His Son to justify us before Him. It is for this righteousness, Jesus said, that we must hunger and thirst.

God seeks to have us close to His heart. We thus better understand the heart of God by confessing our own inabilities to sufficiently perform law and deeds in order to save ourselves. We cannot live flawlessly in reference to His law. We cannot atone for our flawed living through meritorious good works.   God knows all this. When we begin to mourn over our hopeless predicament, it is then that we begin to understand all that God did for us in releasing His heart to us through the eternally incarnate Son who was offered on the cross. This is the heart of God.   It is this “doing right on our behalf” (righteousness) after which we hunger and thirst.

When we in some way begin to understand how far God had to come to retrieve us out of our doomed predicament of sin, then we begin to understand the heart of God that was nailed to the cross.

[Next lecture in series: September 16]

Religious Malpractice

In reference to ourselves today, we do the same as the Jews. For example, we construct a system of theology by which we can either identify ourselves “faithful,” or the “true” church, of which we are “faithful” members.   We search through the New Testament in order to fabricate an outline of doctrinal behavior, which when obeyed, we stamp ourselves justified before God because we are not as the denominations (religions) around us.

We content ourselves that we have a prooftext for every point on our outline of systematic theology and behavior. As long as the precepts of the outline are performed, we content ourselves that we are justified before God, and sanctified of all sins by performing the Sunday morning ritual. Because we have kept ourselves from all others who do not legally perform our outline of religiosity, we have become a denomination among those we accuse of being denominational. We have denominated ourselves from others in our efforts to bind on ourselves various rites that are supposed to indicate our correct religious behavior. And the fact that we are disturbed because someone would even suggest that we have formulated our own catalog of religious rites is evidence that we have.

Unfortunately, we never consider checking the legal religiosity of what we are seeking to meritoriously perform. As the Pharisees, we have convinced ourselves that we can do that which is right, but at the same time do it legally with a spirit of self-sanctification, and still be right in our own self-justification.   Sunday assemblies, for example, have often become an occasion where we weekly check our meritorious performance chart, and once checked, we content ourselves to be satisfied with our own righteousness.

In order to determine if we are guilty of such meritorious religiosity, we should by chance change the way we as a group normally observe the Lord’s Supper on Sunday morning. The more disturbance that is caused by doing things different from the usual will give us some idea of how legal we have become in order to justify ourselves before God through the “performance” of something that could be accomplished in so many different ways.

Unfortunately, the religionist can never be consistent in his own religious rites, especially if he assumes to have a prooftext for every point of obedience. This is clearly revealed in those performances we assume are necessary in our observance of the Lord’s Supper. It would be good for a moment to consider all the variables of the memorial that have been occasions for division among those who seem to have a prooftext for their particular manner by which they observe the Supper.

Consider the time of day, which day, how often, wine, grape juice, who serves, order of service, place in the assembly, number of cups, leaven or unleavened bread, breaking the bread in the tray, loaf or crumbs, sip or drink, serving during assembly, individual services, in the morning or evening, etc. The list could go on. We become religionists when we behave as the Pharisees who did the same in reference to the Sabbath. We stack all sorts of “correctness” around the Lord’s Supper in order that we justify ourselves correct before God. As the Pharisees lost sight of the intent of the Sabbath by obsessing over their religious rites with which they surrounded the Sabbath, we often do the same in reference to the Lord’s Supper. We subsequently stumble over our traditional religious rites, but forget the intent of what Jesus wanted us to remember in partaking together of the bread and fruit of the vine.

God knows, and we know, that we cannot, through the performance of law or our own traditional religious rites, justify ourselves before Him. It is simply impossible for anyone to live perfectly according to law. All are sinners, and all continue to sin (Rm 3:23).   And when we sin, there is no good work that will atone for our sinfulness. There is no formula of religiosity that will sanctify us of our fallibility. We have often thought it amusing that those who presume to partake of the Lord’s Supper that reminds us of our justification, often do so sanctimoniously correct in order to self-sanctify themselves in their traditional ritual of observance of the Supper.

Good works can thus never be a means of sanctification. Therefore, in order for one to stand just before God, God had to take action through the cross. This is exactly what the three thousand honest Jews on the day of Pentecost saw in the message of the gospel. They had for too long futility sought to behave religiously correct in order to merit the favor of God. Subsequently, they had for a long time become frustrated with a pretense of self-sanctification before God. On Pentecost, Peter preached a message that exposed the flaws of their own religiosity. In their efforts to keep their religion pure of false teachers, they actually crucified an innocent man, the very man who would clean up their religious malpractice.

The Pentecost visitors had journeyed to Jerusalem in obedience to law in order to merit their justification before God.   But they saw in the gospel that future trips to Jerusalem for the Passover/Pentecost need never to be made again. They realized that in efforts to perfectly keep law, no one could be justified before God. And atonement for violations of law through animal sacrifices was futile (See Gl 2:16). It was great news.

The message of the gospel that they realized in a moment was what many people cannot discover today over a great period of time, for they continue to perform religious rites weekly in order to be self-sanctified. Nevertheless, the immediate response of the three thousand reveals to us today a very important point: Justification through the cross can be understood and acted upon immediately. If it is not, then there is sin beneath the sin of our obedience to our own religious rites. Our hearts are beyond being cut by the message of the gospel.

The three thousand did not respond to another system of law in order to be legally sanctified of their sins before God. It was this type of religiosity from which they fled. Peter did not hand them another outline of law in order that they again have an attempt at self-justification.   Repentance and baptism were not announced from a legal perspective as an added law. Repentance and baptism were given as the road map for those who mourned over their inability to justify themselves before God. The road map was given as a way to connect with the justification of the gospel that was freely revealed through the incarnation, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God.

In this way the mournful did not transition from one legal system of law to another. Since the gospel was justification through the cross, and the blood offering was for the sanctification of their sins, they responded to the offer of sanctification through their repentant obedience to the gospel (baptism).

Baptism was the means of connectivity. As Abraham was obedient to God to offer his son because of faith, so in baptism our faith is revealed through the offering of ourselves to be baptized. In our baptism, therefore, God says to us the same as He said to Abraham at the time he sought to obediently offer his son: “… for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from Me” (Gn 22:12).

We cannot move on from this point without noting the passive mood of the verbs of Romans 6:3: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” The verbs “were baptized” in reference to the phrases “into Christ Jesus,” and “into His death,” are both passive. Passive means that the subject is acted upon. What Paul revealed is that the person who was baptized into Christ was acted upon by someone else. In baptism one gives himself over to another just as Isaac gave himself over to his father in order to be offered.

When one is baptized, Jesus has already acted upon the one baptized through the blood that comes from His sacrificial offering on the cross. The justification/sanctification through the blood offering of the Son of God happened at one time in the past for the cleansing of those who connect with the blood of Jesus in baptism after the cross. It is through His own blood that He acts upon the soul of those who offer themselves to God in baptism. The result of His blood offering has continued to cleanse those who have offered themselves since the time He poured it out at the cross. In order to connect with the justification of the cross, and subsequently sanctification by the blood, one must make the offering of himself in baptism. He must be crucified with Christ.

This same passive verb was used by Paul when he said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gl 2:20).   Alfred Marshall, in his Greek-English interlinear, translated the passive verb, “I have been co-crucified.”   When we combine what Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, with what he said of himself, the incarnate Son of God acted upon him through His sacrificial crucifixion on the cross.   Though Paul, and the rest of us, have offered ourselves to be crucified with Christ years later, the effect of the blood that continues to flow from the cross continues to have a cleansing impact on all obedient (offered) individuals today.

In our obedience to the cross and resurrection (the gospel), we step into the realm of Jesus’ crucifixion for all sins for all people. This is what the three thousand saw and responded to on the day of Pentecost in response to what they had asked from the apostles. Peter’s instructions to their response was simply: “Repent and be baptized” (At 2:38).

What happened in their baptism was that they came into the realm of justification/sanctification that was made available by the sacrificial offering of Jesus. In their response, they were “co-crucified” with Jesus.   They, as Paul, subsequently led the crucified life because they had been baptized into Christ, into a realm about which John later wrote,

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses [sanctifies] us from all sin (1 Jn 1:7).

The three thousand on the day of Pentecost had been steeped in the religion of their own self-justification for centuries.   Through their obedience to the host of religious rites of Judaism, they had sought to atone for their own sins. However, when the “fullness of time” came when their hearts were opened by the futility of being unable to justify themselves before God, they were ready for the gospel.

Unfortunately, there are too many deeply religious people today who are so steeped in the religiosity of their own religion that the “fullness of time” has not come for them. This is especially true of those religious groups who are held in the bondage of their own feelings. Their effort is often an attempt to cry out “Jesus, Jesus,” “speak in tongues,” or ramble through a catalog of theatrical hysterics in a plea that God forgive their past sins. They do not realize that their emotional religiosity is a denial of that for which they plea.

A Christian is emotionally stirred by the cross of justification. His heart emotionally cries out in thanksgiving and wonder as to how God could love a sinner as himself through the incarnation and cross while he was yet dead in his sins (Rm 5:8). Christians do not cry to God for appeasement. Theirs is a cry of rejoicing.

The emotional religionist, on the other hand, will cry out for a “miracle” in order to reassure himself that he is saved.   Those who have grown in the grace and knowledge of Jesus simply open their Bibles and read of the glorious message of grace that surrounds the event of the gospel (2 Pt 3:18). It is therein that they are reaffirmed that they have been baptized into a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19).

It is indeed unfortunate when one seeks to appease his or her own heart through self-righteously, and thus, miss the heart of God at the cross. We must never forget that when we seek to sanctify ourselves through our own performance of good works, or acts of religious behavior, we are bypassing the sanctification that God freely offers through His grace. When we are earnestly trying to justify ourselves, there is no door open to step into the realm of the justification that Jesus freely offered at the cross. Too many people stumble over their religiosity in their efforts to get to the cross. Too many bypass the heart of God by focusing on pleasing their own heart.

[Next lecture in series: September 14]

Curse of Self-Sanctification

Sanctification refers to our spiritual condition in reference to our relationship with God. Justification refers to the violation of God’s law, but sanctification refers to cleaning up the mess of sin and keeping us clean when we continue to make a mess of ourselves in living the Christian life. The word “sanctify” means “cleanse,” and thus, to remain cleansed by “setting apart” the cleansed from the world. One must first be cleansed, and then set apart from the sin that separates us from God. Sanctification thus refers to those things (sin) that affect our relationship with God.   Briefly stated, justification rectifies our legal relationship with God, whereas sanctification refers to cleaning up that which was legally dysfunctional (sin), and burdened with the stain of sin that separates the lawbreaker from God.

What compelled the Jews on the day of Pentecost to act in response to the gospel was that they saw in the gospel the opportunity for reconciliation with God through the justification of the cross, and subsequent sanctification of their sins through the blood offering of God’s Son.   They had all their lives mourned to be righteous before God, but were honest enough to recognize the futility of their self-justification in their efforts to correct their flawed behavior in reference to God’s law. They subsequently burdened themselves with the addition of one religious rite after another in order to, through a system of self-sanctification, find some peace of mind in reference to their relationship with God. But they found no peace with God through the merits of their behavior. They knew that they were dysfunctional in reference to law and works.

Therefore, when they heard the justification of the cross that Peter revealed, they were overwhelmed. They asked the apostles what to do in order to deal with the matter of their guilt before God in reference to their sins. They were specifically mournful over their participation in the crucifixion seven weeks before of the One whom they realized was actually God’s sufficient payment for their inability to live the sanctified life.   In response to their remorse over their acknowledgment of their spiritual poverty, and their crucifying the Lord of glory, Peter instructed, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins (At 2:38).

There is more in this statement than simply a door into God’s righteousness. In fact, if we focus on obedience to a legal command to repent and be baptized for remission of sins, we will miss the justification and sanctification that the three thousand respondents immediately understood in the gospel message.   We must keep in mind that what cut the people to the heart was not disobedience to some added laws that Peter supposedly preached to them. What cut them to the heart was the message of the gospel.

Consider their situation from this real perspective: They already knew that justification by the grace of God could never come through law, otherwise it would be earned, and thus obligate God to save us. It therefore had to be free and offered through grace. And for this reason, it was initiated from the heart of God toward all those of the world who had stained themselves in sin against Him. The necessity of free justification reveals the forgiving heart of God. God’s justification, therefore, must be inherently free.

Through grace, God launched the means of their connection with Him.   It was now the opportunity for those who hungered and thirsts after His righteousness to respond. Upon their request of what must be done in reference to God’s offer to be justified before Him, Peter gave the answer of Acts 2:38. His answer explained how they could connect with the offering of the heart of God on the cross. His offering had to be joined with an offering of themselves to Him.

The Pentecost respondents had a choice in reference to the answer for their sins that separated them from God. Obedience to the gospel in baptism was “for the remission of sins” because Jesus promised in this new birth, that one could once again enter into the realm of the grace of God (Jn 3:5). In order to connect with the cleansing blood of the cross, they had to take the initiative of offering themselves with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection (See Rm 6:3-6).

In the text of Acts 2 it states that the obedient Jews on Pentecost were “cut to the heart” (At 2:37). The message the apostles preached dealt with the heart of man, for justification and sanctification, along with God’s righteousness, were blessings that come straight from the heart of God. The gospel is a heart to heart contact. And herein is the confusion that is generated by the religions of men that are always meritorious in reference to righteousness. Being seated in the meritorious religion of Judaism, the respondents on the day of Pentecost saw immediately that they had nailed the heart of God to a cross.

For all their lives they sought to sanctify themselves before God through meritorious obedience to religious rites and traditions. They struggled for self-righteousness and presumed that they could attain God’s righteousness through the merit of their own religiosity. This is the common problem of religion. And when the opportunity came to be freely reconciled to God, they crucified their only option.

In order to accomplish their own righteousness, the religious leaders of Israel stacked around the law of God a host of religious traditions in order that the law of God be strictly obeyed.   Unfortunately, while they were thumbing through their catalog of religious rites, they lost sight of the intent of the law of God by obsessing over their self-sought righteousness.   Their own invented religiosity led them to ignore, and then reject, the commandment of God (Mk 7:1-9). Such is the curse of traditional religion. We are blinded by our own religiosity. And being blinded, we cannot, as the Jews who crucified Jesus, see the heart of God in Jesus.

The problem was that the Jews thought that through obedience to their self-imposed religious rites, they could justify themselves before God. And in reference to keeping themselves separated from the world, they devised a host of other religious rites that would identify them as good Jews who had no dealings with the world. Forbidding to eat with a Gentile was one of those rules, which rule even Peter had a difficult time overcoming in reference to eating with the Gentile Cornelius (See At 10, 11). The problem with religious rites is that they always separate us from one another. Denominations begin when a group of adherents huddle around and agreed upon a set of traditional religious rites. Self-imposed religiosity, therefore, not only blinds us from one another, but it also blinds us from the gospel. We are often so focused on our own “church” that we cannot see or understand the gospel.

What the Jews forgot, and that which is often forgotten by the religious world today, is that we are justified before God individually through the free gift of the cross. The free justification of the cross leads to our sanctification, if we accept the gift on God’s conditions (At 2:38). All this was revealed on the A.D. 30 Pentecost because of the grace of God who had a heart for His creation.

The religious world seeks to turn the message of the gospel around through a system of self-sanctification. We supposedly sanctify ourselves by not doing bad things in order to be justified before God. In order to guarantee our sanctification, we establish a catalog of religious rites wherein we seek to continue our sanctification before God.   Our works become efforts to guarantee our salvation. They are not efforts to celebrate our justification, as was the work of Abraham in offering his son. They are works in which we can boast of what we have done ourselves in order to supposedly satisfy God.

 Religion is a system of legally performing self-imposed religious rites in an effort to reach into the heart of God.   Religion is in its very nature meritorious. It assumes that our justification before God is dependent on our efforts to sanctify ourselves through our own performance of religious rites and law. In this way, we are behaving as the hypocrites in our “trumpet blowing” religion. We are crushing the heart of God by focusing on our own religiosity that blinds us to the heart of God that was revealed through the offering of His Son on the cross. It is for this reason that the more we claim to be righteous through the performance of our own meritorious religious rites, the further we move ourselves away from the righteousness of God.

In the behavior of our religion, we have forgotten the most important principle of the gospel.   The gospel is the heart of God freely reaching out to the heart of man through His only begotten Son.   We cannot get to the heart of God through that which keeps us away. Our dysfunctional behavior will never allow us to realize our goal of being in a close relationship with our Father. In seeking to get to the heart of God through meritorious religiosity, our own dysfunctional efforts to keep our religious rites and God’s law perfectly (perform), keep us away. In reference to the Jews, and their efforts to solve this problem, they kept adding more religious laws in order to bring some satisfaction to themselves that they were making a good effort. But honest Jews knew the futility of adding precept upon precept, statute to statute, performances upon performances, in any effort to keep one sanctified before God.   They realized that the righteousness of God had to come from God alone, and based on His conditions. And, it had to be free.

[Next lecture in series: September 12]

Self-Serving Righteousness

If we exchange the justification that we have before God through the cross, for an attempted self-justification through the religious rites we would bind on ourselves, then it is not a matter of trading one means of justification for another. We would actually be giving up our justification that we have received through the cross if we would seek to establish our own justification.   Self-justification inherently denies, or disregards, the sufficiency of the justification of the cross.

Not for a moment should we even consider subsidizing our justification that we have received through the cross. Some Jewish brethren tried this in Galatia. But the Holy Spirit sternly charged them for constructing “another gospel” (Gl 1:6-9). Without any need for interpretation, the Spirit frankly stated, “As we said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed (Gl 1:9).

Therefore, we would do well to listen to Paul’s continued exhortation of some in Colosse in reference to the religious ordinances of men: “All these [ordinances] concern things that perish with the using, after the commandments and doctrines of men” (Cl 2:22). We assume, therefore, that we will perish with the religious rites of men if we seek to add to the cross our own traditions by which we would seek to justify ourselves before God. In fact, in the bluntness of a literary mandate, the Holy Spirit said to some Galatians who did this, You have been severed from Christ, you who seek to be justified by law. You have fallen from grace (Gl 5:4).

Self-justification through obedience of our religious rites, or even the law of God, gives one the opportunity to pose as a religious person before God and man. He presents himself with the opportunity to boast before others. For example, the religionists of Jesus’ day had someone blow a trumpet when they made a contribution to the poor on the streets and in the synagogues. But Jesus said, “When you do good deeds, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be glorified by men” (Mt 6:2). Inherent in self-justification through law and good deeds is “trumpet blowing” religiosity in order that we may be recognized for our performance.

Self-justification always leads to trumpet blowing for self-glorification. We naturally like to be glorified as individuals who crave attention. We seek the approval of others. But if we involve ourselves in such religious behavior of showmanship, Jesus says that we have already received our reward (Mt 6:2).   Attempts for self-justification, therefore, lead to exchanging the glory that one will receive from God to that which is given by man. This is the curse of our obedience to the religious ordinances of men in an attempt to justify ourselves before God. It is the inherent curse of religion.

With the following statement, Paul concluded his rebuke of some in Colosse who had involved themselves in self-justification.

These things have indeed a show of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and neglect of the body, but not in any value in restraining the indulgence of the flesh (Cl 2:23).

The problem with self-justification is that we suppose we can, through our outward religious performances, make a presentation of righteousness, while at the same time allowing the sinful motives of our heart go unchecked. The trumpet blowing religionist seeks to present himself outwardly righteous before others, but fails to deal with the sin beneath the sin. He seeks to restrain himself through extreme outward asceticism and fasting, but does not correct the sin beneath the sin. All that he does as a show of religiosity, therefore, is worthless in controlling the lusts of the flesh. He is as the one about whom Jesus spoke who looks with a lustful gaze on at woman, but fails to correct the adulterous feelings of his adulterous heart (Mt 5:28).

Self-justification is always outward. But the justification that comes through our obedience to the gospel is inward. The justification (righteousness) that we receive through the gospel deals with the heart in order to correct our behavior. For this reason, there is never an opportunity for trumpet blowing for what God has done inwardly.

It is our inward justification that gives impetus to our outward behavior. This is exactly what James meant when we wrote, “I will show you my faith by my works” (Js 2:18). The Christian works because he is already justified before God. He does not work in order to be justified.

There is no contradiction between Paul and James in reference to our justification by faith and works. Both Paul and James were addressing Christians, but approaching the subject of justification from different perspectives, depending on the problem that prevailed in their respective audiences. Some in Paul’s audience were resorting to justification through meritorious works of law. Some in James’ audience believed that they stood justified without doing anything in response to their justification.

James asked has audience, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” (Js 2:21). Because of faith, Abraham was motivated to act on God’s instructions. “You see that faith was working with his works, and by works was faith made perfect” (Js 2:22). So James concluded, “You see then that a man is justified by works and not by faith only” (Js 2:24). Abraham was not justified by meritorious works that he had determined on his own accord to be accepted by God. He was justified “with his works,” which works of obedience to God’s command completed (perfected) his faith. In the example of Abraham, faith and work through the offering of his son could never be separated. His works was the manifestation of his faith that God had accepted him.

Because Abraham was justified by God by his existing trust in God (faith), his inward justification (righteousness) before God was revealed through his obedience to offer his son, Isaac. For this reason, he was not meritoriously justified before God through the offering, but because he walked in the righteousness of God.   We must not reverse the order of justification and faith in the case of Abraham. Abraham was first justified by faith, and then his obedience revealed his justification by faith.

Abraham’s example was James’ argument against those who assumed that their “dead faith” was sufficient. James’ argument is against those who seek to stand righteous before God on the basis of “faith only.” His argument is that true faith is evidenced to others, and before God, by one’s obedience, as Abraham’s offering of Isaac indicated His justification before God. Faith that is not manifested through works reveals that the “faith only” person has not discovered the heart of God that was revealed on the cross.   Abraham’s understanding of the heart of God was revealed to us through his offering of his only son. Because of his faith, he was willing to do all that God asked of him.

On the A.D. 30 Pentecost, about three thousand people heard a message of justification that was totally contrary to the religious system of self-justification that permeated Judaism.   Judaism was a religious system of self-justification in which the Jews had participated throughout their lives.   It was the religion of their fathers that had been handed down from one generation to another, with more regulations being added to the Sinai law with each generation. When the A.D. 30 Pentecost arrived, it was the religion of all those who were present. In fact, in obedience to law and their religious traditions, they were driven to Jerusalem for the Passover/Pentecost feast.

Unfortunately, the attending Jews at Pentecost had turned the law of God into a religious system of behavior whereby they thought that they could return home after Pentecost, considering themselves righteous before God because they had meritoriously made the trip to Jerusalem for the Passover/Pentecost feast. They could then “blow their trumpet” back home in the synagogue that they had legally made the required trip to Jerusalem.

The Jews were involved in a religion of self-justification. Every honest and sincere Jew knew this. But they reasoned that they had no alternative, for there was no further revelation from God since the Sinai law until Jesus came. They had been as Paul wrote, “But before faith came, we [Jews] were kept under guard by law, being shut up to the faith that would afterward be revealed (Gl 3:23).

The problem with self-justification through perfect law-keeping and religious performances is that those who seek to be so justified before God on the basis of their own performance of law, know that something is very wrong. Honest people confess to themselves that they are sinners before God and that no meritorious system of religion can be devised by either God or man whereby man can legally justify himself before our Creator on the basis of any perfect performance of law. The reason for this is that we are all unrighteous. We all stand condemned before God on the basis of our dysfunctional behavior in reference to law, whether ours or God’s (Rm 6:23).

Honest Jews knew deep inside that their journey to Jerusalem every year for the Passover/Pentecost feast would ever truly bring them peace with God. They honestly knew that no amount of journeys or animal sacrifices could justify them before the God they sought so much to please. The sincere Jews thus mourned over their problem of inadequate performance of law (See Mt 5:4). Self-justification was inherently impossible because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23). “There is none righteous, no, not one (Rm 3:10). The same is still true today.

And then came the Pentecost of A.D. 30 that is recorded in Acts 2. Something was announced on that day before an audience of honest Jews who understood the futility of self-justification. In mourning over their plight of not being able to legally justify themselves before the Father, they heard a message of which they could never have dreamed to be possible. Pronounced by twelve men on that day was a message of deliverance from themselves. The text reads, “Now when they heard this …” (At 2:37). “This” was not a message of more rules and regulations that they could add to their religion of Judaism.   Law was the problem, not the solution.

What they heard was a message of concept that was based on the actions of God. Because God was not willing that any should perish, He acted out of His heart for mankind.   What was announced was the heart of God in action through the offering of His Son. In fact, it was an announcement of the death of Judaism and all works-oriented religions. It was the death of law in reference to justifying ourselves before God through perfect law-keeping. Because of His grace, God took care of our justification through His Son, and thus, He brought to an end any supposed self-justification through either law or religion.

The Pentecost announcement was not simply a message of facts and events concerning the death and resurrection of the One for whom they had, as good and faithful Jews, cried out seven weeks before to be crucified. It was a message of reconciliation through the One they nailed on a cross. It was a message of good news (gospel), a message that one could be justified before God apart from meritorious works, animal sacrifices, journeys to Jerusalem, or any obedience to the ordinances of man-made religions.   Law was found to be insufficient and grace was in. It was a message that, apart from law, justification was poured out through the Son of God on the cross. It was a gospel that did not come through law, but through promise (Gl 3:15-25).   It was a proclamation that in Christ Jesus you are not under law, but under grace (Rm 6:14).

When honest, guilt-ridden lawbreakers see the heart of God at the cross of justification, their only option is a joyous response. When we understand that we cannot be justified legally before God, either through our own religious laws, or the perfect keeping of the law of God, we cry out for grace. When our cry is based on faith that God would not leave us in our pitiful condition of attempting to justify ourselves through law-keeping and meritorious religious rites, we seek the only other alternative.

If we would be accepted by our God, then we must through faith accept His conditions for our reconciliation with Him. When we realize that meritorious religion fails, it is then that we understand that grace prevails. When we realize that law-keeping always sells us short of the grace of God, it is only then that we fully appreciate the heart of God that was unleashed on the cross through the sacrificial offering of the incarnate Son of God.   It all makes one want to stand up and shout out, “GLORY HALLELUJAH!” We rejoice over the words of the Holy Spirit: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God (Ep 2:8).

[Next lecture in series: September 10]

Rise of Self-Justification

Justification refers to law and one’s compliance with law in his relationship with God. Justification would mean that we stand before God “just as if we had not sinned.”   Justification, therefore, refers to our legal relationship with God according to His law.

How we view justification defines the difference between religion and the gospel. The religionist would believe that he is justified before God because of his own efforts to sanctify himself from the ways of the world. However, the heart of God that was revealed through the gospel is that one is justified through the cross, and thus, sanctified from the world. The religionist seeks through self-sanctification to be justified, but the gospel says that we are justified, and thus seek to lead a sanctified life.

The difference between the two approaches by which one would come before God are entirely different. Depending on how one considers his or her relationship with God is often revealed through trials that come our way. When something goes wrong in the life of the religionists who is working so hard to be justified before God on the merit of his own performances to sanctify himself, he blames God. He blames God for not working in his life to guard him from all trials.   If there is a death in the family, he blames God for allowing the death. If he suffers financial impoverishment, he blames God for allowing him to be in such a plight. Pleas for the Holy Spirit to work in his life never seem to be answered.

On the other hand, those who adhere to the hope of the gospel have an entirely different world view. The gospel says, “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:29). The gospel says, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (Js 1:2). The gospel says, Cast “all your care on Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pt 5:7).   The one who lives by the gospel, lives the life of gratitude, knowing that it is the gospel, not himself, that justifies us before God.

What the religionists forgets is that in our relationship with God, all of us violate law (Rm 3:23). According to law, therefore, we are all guilty. And for this reason, and if we would enjoy eternal life, all of us must in some way be able to stand before God justified of all our violations of God’s law. The problem is that no man can be justified before God on his own ability to live a perfectly sanctified life.

We can thank God that He sent a lawyer to the cross on our behalf. It is the gospel revealed on the cross that made justification possible to all those who would connect with God through Jesus, our advocate (1 Jn 2:1; see Hb 7:25; 9:24). It is because of the justification of the sacrificial offering of Jesus that we begin to see the heart of God.   We do so because God could just as easily have discarded all of us to eternal destruction. But because He has a heart for us, He revealed a way of setting aside violations of law in order that we be reconciled to Him for eternity.

Before the foundation of the world, and before the creation of the first two lawbreakers, the Son of God had volunteered to set things right legally between God and man. This thought was behind Jesus’ prayer statement to the Father immediately before the cross: “You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (Jn 17:24). Before “the foundation of the world” the Father predestined the sanctified (the church) unto eternal glory. “He has chosen us [the church] in Him,” Paul wrote, “before the foundation of the world” (Ep 1:4). In order that God be just in the creation of those who would break His law, the gospel of justification was in place before the first word was spoken to bring into existence all lawbreakers.

When Jesus came into the world in the flesh, He “uttered things that have been kept secret from the foundation of the world” (Mt 13:35). After the creation and before the cross, even God’s prophets searched intensely what revelation had been given through them in order to discover these things (1 Pt 1:10-12).   Jesus “indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times” as the revealed mystery of the gospel (1 Pt 1:20; see Ep 3:3-5). Before there was creation, therefore, there was justification made possible by the foreordained cross, for without the plan of justification through the offering of Divinity, it would have been unjust for God to create.

By the time the mystery was to be revealed, the Jews, because they could not wait for God’s righteousness, established their own system of righteousness before God. Paul explained their problem in the following statement:

For they [the Jews] being ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God (Rm 10:3).

Theirs was a system of works and religious rites whereby they sought to justify themselves through meritorious law-keeping and works. In seeking this self-made righteousness, they ignored the righteousness of God. They prioritized their righteousness above God’s righteousness.   This was the very thing that Paul, a Jew, and the three thousand on the day of Pentecost, recognized that they had done in their relationship with God. It is this realization that strikes right at our hearts and leads us to be led to do that which is exceedingly abundantly above all that we could realize (Ep 3:20). The following self-confession of Paul would be a statement that explains all that one would do in response to finding the heart of God in the expression of the gospel:

I count all things for loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things. I count them refuse so that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness that is from law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness that is from God by faith (Ph 3:8,9).

Judaism was a religion that was typical of all “self-seeking-righteousness” religions that are created after the will of men who seek to be justified through their own efforts of self-sanctification.   Judaism was a religion of self-justification through rules and traditions by which all religions are defined.   Adherence to the rules and traditions becomes the standard by which adherents judge themselves faithful to their religion, and because they are “faithful,” they have a “faithful” relationship with God. The leaders of such religions, therefore, become the gate-keepers for faithfulness of the adherents by making judgments concerning the adherents’ faithfulness to the rules and regulations of the religion. This religious world view the advocates of religion, and their leaders, is characteristic of all religions throughout the world today.

In reference to Christianity, Christianity is often turned into a religion of self-justification through the added rules and regulations (issues) of those who would seek to religiously rule over their fellow religionists. Obedience to these rules, or religious codes of behavior, become the standard by which one is judged righteous, and thus faithful before God. Depending on one’s obedience to specific traditional rites of a particular religion, he or she is judged to be either faithful or unfaithful in reference to “the church.”

This is nothing new. Paul was writing to some disciples in Colosse who were moving in the direction of making Christianity a “self-made” religion.   They were introducing a system of religious rules whereby members would seek to justify themselves before God.   Through the keeping of their traditional religious “issues,” they were bringing into the fellowship of the disciples a system of man-made religiosity by which they judged one another.

Paul warned these Colossian disciples of their efforts to create a “self-made” religion by turning Christianity into a system of self-justification. He asked, “If you died with Christ from the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourselves to ordinances?” (Cl 2:20).

In the context of the gospel, and in obedience to the gospel (2 Th 1:6-9), the Colossian disciples had “died with Christ” (See Rm 6:3-6). They had responded to the gospel of grace. Paul was now challenging their present efforts of trading their justification by the cross through their obedience to the gospel for religious ordinances of men whereby they would declare themselves justified and righteous before God. He was questioning why, having been justified by the cross, they would turn again to self-justification through obedience of the religious ordinances of men.

In reference to such man-made religious ordinances and self-justification, Paul simply shouted out imperatives in reference to our efforts of self-justification through obedience to the religious rites of men: “Do not touch. Do not taste. Do not handle” (Cl 2:21).

[Next lecture in series: September 8]

Religion: Growth Away From God

In order to understand the heart of God that was expressed through the Father’s grace on the cross, we must understand the true nature of religion. The problem is that religion is inherently divisive, and because it is divisive, it not only divides religious people within societies, it also moves one away from the cross and away from God. Religion has a deceptive nature that makes one feel that he is either emotionally or legally growing closer to God, but in actuality, is moving away from the heart of God.

The better we understand this phenomenon of religion, the better we can understand the explosive response to the cross in the first century. The day of Pentecost in A.D. 30 in Acts 2 is an example of a surreal response when honest and sincere people finally realize that their religion (Judaism) has moved them so far from God that they feel hopeless in their religiosity. When the respondents on that day heard the announcement of a path back to God through His grace, they were overwhelmed. And so are we.

Herein is revealed the inherent problem with religion from which they came. Because we are created religious, as a collective of religious individuals, we will always agree upon a religious code of belief and conduct by which each one of us is accepted into a religious group, or by which each religious group is identified. Religion demands a collective of individuals, and thus, in order to be accepted into this collective (fellowship), rules must be established for everyone in order for the collective to identify itself as a unique religious sect of the world. The rules, or codes of identity, are the means by which the adherents to a particular religion find confidence in their faith. Such was the nature of the Jews’ religion. By their religion they were able to continue their identity, and above all, their separation from the world of Gentiles.

Adherents to the rules of the religion, subsequently, become the means by which one is justified before God. In religion, the adherents of any particular sect always confuse acceptance by those of the religion and acceptance of God in their obedience to the rules of their respective religion. The rules and laws of the religion thus become the means by which one is justified as a member of a particular religious sect, as well as whether one is justified before God. If one is not justified as a faithful member of a particular religious sect, then he or she is judged not to be justified before God.

This same system of identity is sometimes used to engineer a national/religious society. The reassuring rules (laws) within a society will often originate from social upheaval that is taking place in society. In order to bring peace, the religious world often synchronizes religious and social rules by constructing a national/religious order wherein each individual is accepted in the society by adherence to the rules.   Adherence to the national/religious rules makes a theocracy, and such was Israel made at Mt. Sinai. However, the faith of Israel was not a religion, for the foundation of the Jews’ faith was originally based on the revealed word of God at Mt. Sinai. In contrast to people bringing peace within their own societies through devised systems of national religion, Israel was established as a theocracy through direct revelation from God.

In a theocracy, civil government and religion become one. In order for one to be an accepted citizen of the governed society, he or she must adhere to the rules (laws) of the religion, and vice versa. Those who do not conform to the rules of the theocracy are considered apostates, and thus expelled from the society. Built within the Sinai law were rules that maintained a separation of the Israelites from the nations around them. These rules were there for a purpose, for God did not want Israel to go the way of the world, which thing they invariably did.

For the same reason, Islam is a theocracy.   Rules were instituted in the Quran to identify a Muslim, and thus keep the Muslim separated from the “infidel” at all costs. In the conflicts of seventh century, Muhammad congealed his army into a single fighting force by introducing a religious nationalism whereby all citizens fought against all other religions that did not conform to his religion.

However, advocates of a theocratic society may be zealous to keep the laws of the nation and religion in the beginning of the new nation, but when citizens begin to set aside the rules that define the faith and government of the nation (Hb 4:6), apostasy is no longer defined as apostasy. That which was originally considered apostate teaching has become the new definition of the nation. So went the theocratic society of Israel when they gave up that which defined them as the people of God. This is the fear of fundamentalist Islamic societies today against the efforts of some Muslims to modernize Islam. The fundamentalist’s greatest fear is to go the way of the West, and in doing so, they lose their identity as a theocracy according to the definition of the Quran.

Israel began as a heavenly defined society through the revelation of divine civil and moral laws that were given to the people directly from God. However, the citizens of Israel eventually laid aside the law of God (See Hs 4:6).   Israel’s faith in God that was defined by the revealed will of God was replaced with their own fabricated religion.   The command that they have no other gods before the one true and living God was replaced with gods they had created after their own imagination. The law of God was replaced with their own religious rites by which they would claim allegiance to their new gods.

Israel went astray as a nation of God by moving from God’s authority in matters of faith to their own self-righteous authority.   When Israel went astray from its original God-given national and spiritual boundaries, then the citizens did that which was right in their own eyes. And so it was written of apostate Israel. On more than one occasion in Judges the statement is made, “Every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Jg 17:6).

God created us to be religiously inclined.   However, we must not accuse God of creating us as flawed individuals in a world society. We were not created spiritually flawed, but mentally and emotionally always in need of a Higher Power to guide us. With this God-created yearning for this High Power, it is our responsibility to search out and find the authority of this Higher Power. This was the meaning behind what Paul wrote in Romans 1:20:

For the invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and divinity, so that they are without excuse.

God created within us a religious inclination that should move us, by simple observance of that which was created, to look beyond ourselves in our search for God. But it is as Paul wrote, “Men … suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rm 1:18). Religiously misguided men of the past “knew God,” but “they glorified Him not as God” (Rm 1:21). So “professing to be wise, they became fools” (Rm 1:22). They “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like unto corruptible man and of birds and four-footed beasts and crawling things” (Rm 1:23). The problem with men is as Paul wrote, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rm 1:25).

This is the nature of the religionists.   Through efforts of self-justification, the religious worshiper is worshiping and serving his own performance of law and religious rites. In doing so, the adherent of religion moves away from God by thinking that his or her religion will bring one closer to God. This is the deception of religion. Any religion that places trust in the performance of man to justify himself before God, minimizes the free gift of God’s grace through the cross.

God gives up on those who give up on His word as the authority of their faith (Rm 1:24). Religious men did this in the past because they did not like to retain God in their knowledge (Rm 1:28). And herein is the problem of religion with which we are challenged in a religious world today where the religious world is giving up a knowledge of the Bible. The Bible is no longer the primary standard of faith for the religionist. Faith is based primarily on the religious behavior of the adherents (See Rm 10:17). And because the religionist does not “receive the love of the truth so that they might be saved,” God allows him to be deceived by his own religiosity (2 Th 2:10).

 God will send them strong delusion so that they should believe a lie [of religion], that they all might be condemned who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness (2 Th 2:11,12).

Jeremiah realized this rebellious psychology of man when he wrote, “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself.   It is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jr 10:23). This psychology of man is not a mental flaw. God did not create us to be rebellious robots. It was intentional on the part of God that man’s innate religiosity should always be directed by His will. But when we determine to give up a knowledge of His will in order to preserve our religion, we have moved ourselves away from God and the authority of His word.

If it were in man to direct his own ways according to the will of God, then we would be pre-programmed robots who would have no choice. And if we were programmed to always do that which was right in the eyes of God, then God could never remain just if anyone were condemned to an eternal hell. In fact, if we were programmed to always do the will of God, then there would be no such thing as hell. Everyone would be saved. But if there were not the optional destiny of hell, and the reality of such, then how could we ever love? Why would God even need to reveal His love for us if we were headed back to Him regardless of any wrong choices we might make?

We must never exclude nor ignore the reality of hell. If we do, then we minimize the action of the heart of God that took place at the cross. In fact, if hell is not a reality, then the cross was foolishness. If there were no hell, then would the Son of God humiliate Himself through incarnation and the death of the cross?

Since God is love, then He could not create an individual who was without the ability to choose his own destiny.   If we could not choose love, and thus choose our destiny to be eternally with God, then why would there be creation in the first place? Think of it this way: Since God is love, then He had to create us. And for us to respond to any love that He might show us, we had to be created with the freedom to return His love through obedience.   This means that in our creation as individuals who could choose, there was the chance that we could go wrong by making the wrong choices. And so went Israel after gods of their own imagination in order to satisfy their own rebellion.

Now we can understand why we are so inclined to create religion, either in the absence of God’s will, or our outward rebellion against it. The existence of religion reveals either our rebellion, or according to Paul’s statement in Romans 1:20, our willful ignorance of God and His will. In either case, it reveals the will of the creature to “worship and serve” the creature rather than the Creator. It reveals the efforts of the created to move beyond their Creator. Since God created man in a way that necessitated the steps in which we should walk, then those who would choose to ignore the principles of God have chosen to rebel against their Creator.

We must not think that we are missing the point of the power of the gospel, and the heart of God revealed therein. On the contrary, we are laying the foundation upon which God crashed our proverbial party of religiosity that had progressed far into the night by the first century. It is with this awareness that we interpret Galatians 4:4: “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His son ….”

The “fullness of time” was not in reference to the fulfillment of prophecy, for prophecy concerning the Messiah could have been fulfilled anytime during the five hundred year existence of the Roman Empire (See Dn 2:44; 7:13,14). The fullness of time would at least refer to the socio/religious environment when sincere Jews began to feel the extreme bondage of their religion (See Gl 5:1).   In feeling this bondage, they realized the futility of their efforts to justify themselves through law-keeping.   They thus longed for relief from God.

By the time of the first century, both Jews and Gentiles had fabricated their own religiosity to perfection, if indeed we could ever use the word “perfection” in reference to religion. At least the Pharisees made a good attempt at such, for they assumed that God’s law could not be “perfectly” obeyed unless there were an assortment of religious rules connected to each commandment of God.   They were so fearful of going the way of their apostate forefathers who had forsaken the commandment of God and ended up in the captivity of the Assyrians and Babylonians, that they created a religion (Judaism) by which they could judge themselves justified before God according to their own performance of law and good works.

Therefore, in order never to let such apostasy happen again in the history of Israel, the scribes and Pharisees surrounded each revealed law of God with a host of their own precautionary regulations. Unfortunately, in obsessing over their added religious regulations, they forgot to focus on the intent of the commandment itself.   On one occasion, Jesus judged them, “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men” (Mk 7:8). The religious leaders put themselves in a situation where they could not see through the maze of their own precautionary traditional religious rites of obedience (tradition) in order to discover the spirit of the original commandments of God. And for this reason, Jesus intensified His judgment of their religion: “All too well you reject the commandment of God so that you may keep your own tradition” (Mk 7:9).

Religion can arise in the hearts of any well-meaning worshiper. We would judge the religious leaders of the Jews sincere in that they wanted to guard themselves from going into the former apostasy of their fathers. However, we would judge them, as Jesus, to be apostates in their fear of apostasy. Well-intended religious people often go wrong by legally creating a religion by which they seek to justify themselves before God through strict adherence to the codes of their own self-imposed religion.

In reference to Christians, the same road to “fake religion” is also walked. Some of the Christians in Rome, who evidently were of Jewish origin, made this mistake. To counter their theology of works-oriented religion, Paul made a statement that frightens those who have turned Christianity into a legal system of attempted self-justification: “For sin will not have dominion over you, for you [Christians] are not under law, but under grace” (Rm 6:14). Those who have turned Christianity into a system of self-justification through law-keeping, as the scribes and Pharisees had turned the Sinai law into the same, will never understand this statement. They will not for they have gone in the way of religion, as opposed to the way of grace and faith.

In reference to the religion that Jesus encountered in the first century, grace and faith was an invasion. It was the grace and faith of the gospel that penetrated to the very heart of the religiosity of the Jewish people. The revelation of the gospel was such a shocking contrast to the religion of Judaism, or the “Jews’ religion” (Gl 1:13), that three thousand people in one day stood stunned before twelve men who spoke of these things. When the day of Pentecost was finally over, over three thousand repentant people had come to the conclusion that salvation was truly by grace and faith. Their own religiosity had moved them so far away from God that they saw in Jesus the only way back (At 4:12). They had lost heart in their own religiosity, but saw in the gospel the way back into the heart of God.

Once we conclude that religion is an effort on the part of man to walk in his own paths, then we come to an axiomatic truth: The more we are into religion according to the doctrines and commandments of men, the further we are removed from God.

When we understand the very core of the religion of the Jews, then we can clearly understand the overwhelming response of those three thousand Jews on the day of Pentecost who immediately understood the message of the gospel. They had moved themselves so far away from God through their own religion that they immediately saw their way back “into the grace of God” through the risen and reigning Son of God. It was a glorious realization. Their response will always be the epitome of people on earth who understand the revelation of the heart of God through the incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension. When such is realized, there is no going back to legal or emotional religion.   There is no longer the desire to “worship and serve the creature” rather than the Creator. When one discovers that which is true, there is no longer a lure to religion that is based on our own self-righteousness to justify ourselves before God.

[Next lecture in series: September 6]

Leaving Father or Son

We once stood beside the grave sites of missionaries of the Moffet Mission in Kuruman, South Africa that was established in the early 1800s. We had mixed emotions while standing there. We noticed a great number of tombstones. The tombstones were a witness to the death of those who gave up fathers and mothers in Europe, many of whom they would never see again in their lifetime when they boarded ships that were destined for Africa. It is told that when some missionaries left Europe to go to the “white man’s grave” of Africa, that on departure from Europe, the brave missionaries would pack their belongings in their own coffins and load them on ships that were destined to a people to whom they would preach the gospel. Their dedication to their mission was not a matter of soothing a spirit of adventure, but a matter of preaching the gospel to the “dark continent.”

As we stood there by the grave sites of so many at the Moffet Mission who had eventually put to use their coffins, we noticed that about half of the grave sites were those of children. Many of the children of the pioneering messengers of the gospel from Europe had sacrificed, not only themselves, but also their own children to fever and disease in order to accomplish their mission.   There lay in those graves the fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, who were buried alongside one another because there was a deep-seated love in their hearts for the lost. In those graves were fathers and mothers who had left their own fathers and mothers in Europe in order to bear the glorious message of the gospel to a land that needed so much hope. Our experience at that grave site was mixed with both joy and sadness, but primarily joy.

Our joy emerged from the knowledge that these were truly dedicated servants of God who knew the heart of God. Those graves were a witness to the power of the heart of God that was revealed through the gospel. There was nothing that these sacrificial bearers of the gospel would not do in order to preach the gospel message to the world.

The early messengers buried at Kuruman were as Abraham, on whom God called to sacrifice his only son. Abraham was obedient. He concluded that if he left his son for a time through the offering, God was able to returned Isaac through resurrection. Abraham “concluded that God was able to raise Him [Isaac] up, even from the dead, from which he also figuratively received him back” (Hb 11:19). The spared life of Isaac was a figure of the future resurrection when we will receive back all our loved ones.

Those gospel bearers of the heart of God from Europe were able to offer themselves and their children on the altar of sacrifice because both fathers and sons knew that God would eventually reunite them in the resurrection of the dead when Jesus comes again. And for this reason, they did not need to sorrow upon their departure from one another. As Paul reminded the saints in Thessalonica, they did not “grieve as others who have no hope” (1 Th 4:13). They firmly believed in the gospel that “Jesus died and rose again (1 Th 4:14).   They momentarily cried on one another’s shoulders upon the physical departure from one another, but realized that at the sound of the last trumpet, “God will bring with Him [Jesus] those [loved ones] who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Th 4:14).   They found comfort in this vital message that permeates the heart of the message of the gospel (1 Th 4:18).

And now we have a better understanding of what Jesus meant, when during His ministry. He called on those who would be His disciples to love Him more than family and to leave family if necessary. To his Jewish readers who cherished the family more than the Gentiles, Matthew recorded that Jesus said on one occasion, He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (Mt 10:37). To the same Jewish families, and on another occasion when He was nearing the cross, He went even further in His call for sincere discipleship:

 And every one who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother or children, or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit everlasting life (Mt 19:29).

Everything about which Jesus spoke of leaving in this statement was precious to the Jews. Immediate family was a part of their heritage as Jews. Their identity as Jews was engulfed in genealogies, for through genealogy they proved their Jewishness. And as Jews, the “land” was a part of their continuation in history as Jews. The promised land was an inheritance in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (Gn 12:1-4). It was their right to have the land for the heritage of their families. Nevertheless, Jesus was calling on His Jewish disciples to be willing to leave both.

The gospel would eventually mean that the Jews would sacrifice both family and land. They sacrificed their family heritage when all Jews who were obedient to the gospel became one man in Christ where there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gl 3:26-29). The Jews sacrificed their land in the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem when over one million Jews were killed and the rest were sold into slavery throughout the Roman Empire (See Mt 24).

The beauty of both sacrifices on the part of the Jewish Christians, however, was that they did both with joy. If it were necessary, they joyfully left their physical family heritage when they came into fellowship with Gentiles in Christ.   They left lands when they discovered the heart of God who gave His Son, and subsequently were scattered everywhere throughout the world in order to preach the gospel (At 8:4). This helps us understand the historical statements that were made in reference to the new Jewish Christians on the day of Pentecost and thereafter: “And they sold their possessions and goods and divided them to all, as everyone had need” (At 2:45).

 Nor was there any among them who lacked, for as many as were owners of land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold (At 4:34).

“And Joseph who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas … having land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (At 4:36,37). We would conclude that the first disciples, who were Jews, got the message of the heart of the gospel. They were willing to do anything that God would call on them to do, for God went to the extreme through the incarnation to act on their behalf.

The message of the gospel involves leaving and giving all that is necessary in order to follow down the road that Jesus took in order to make the gospel available to the world. When we speak of the incarnation, therefore, we discover a part of what the Father and Son did on our behalf. We better understand what Jesus meant when He made the preceding statements in reference to the sacrifices that His Jewish brethren would have to make upon their obedience to the gospel. And the beautiful thing about what Jewish Christians left is that they did it with joy. It was as James said, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (Js 1:2). And such did the Jewish Christians in their early discipleship after obedience to the gospel:

For you had compassion on me in my chains, and took joyfully the seizure of your goods, knowing that you have for yourselves in heaven a better and an enduring possession (Hb 10:34).

The gospel involves leaving fathers and mothers in homelands, and often sons and daughters in the lands of one’s mission, just as Jesus did when He came to us with the good news of the incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension. Paul said, Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus (Ph 2:5). And then he went on to say in the Philippians 2 context that Jesus left heaven through incarnation in order to bring the gospel message to a “dark world” (Ph 2:6-8). This is the spirit of sacrifice that we must see in the incarnation. It is a sacrificial offering because God the Father and Son so loved the world (Jn 3:16), not willing that any one of their creation perish (2 Pt 3:9). When we discover their heart in willingly leaving one another for others, then we are driven to do the same. When a Christian sincerely says to the Father, “Ask anything and I will do it,” then we know that this Christian has discovered the heart of God.

While on the cross, we now understand the words of Jesus in view of what the Father had to do on behalf of us. Jesus cried out to the Father, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt 27:46). The common interpretation of this statement is that the Father had forsaken Jesus only for a moment on the cross because He bore the sins of the world. But we think the meaning goes far, far deeper.   We wonder what tears flowed in heaven thirty-three years before the cross when the Son possibly said to the Father, “It is time for Me to leave You forever in the form in which We now exist.”

The Son subsequently left the Father through incarnation and would never be with the Father again as He was before the incarnation. If the incarnation was indeed forever, then it was at the ascension that the Son was united in presence again with the Father in heaven (Hb 8:1), but only as He now is and we will be (1 Jn 3:2). In the resurrection, the Son would forever be as we will be in our new spiritual bodies in eternity, but also in the presence of the Father. All this will has been possible because the Father and Son had a heart for us.

Because of His own sacrificial offering to leave His Father through incarnation, Jesus found no difficulty in calling on those who would be His disciples to be willing to also leave their fathers and mothers, sons and daughters on His behalf. He was not a hypocrite in making the request. He and His Father had so loved the world that He gave up and left the Father for us (Jn 3:16). We too should so love the world of lost humanity to be willing to leave our fathers and mothers for Him. Our hope is in the fact that the leaving will eventually end in restoration. It will be our resurrection when Jesus comes again that will forever seal the reunion of all those who die in Christ. The cross was the solution for justification, but it was the resurrection that was the solution for our hopeless end.

In the context of Jesus’ call for His disciples to be willing to leave family and possessions for Him, He was speaking specifically concerning what He did for them. His reference was to their obedience to the gospel. If any unbelieving family member would hinder their obedience to the gospel, then they must choose Him over their wishes. If family must be sacrificed for Jesus, then as Jesus so loved us through the incarnation and cross, with the same sacrificial love we must put Him first.

Herein is revealed the heart of God that was revealed through the Son. When Jesus said to Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” He meant more than presence, essence and being (Jn 14:9). We see the heart of God in the incarnate presence of Jesus who came to dwell among us. We see the heart of God in His eternal sacrifice for us.

Jesus is the revelation of God’s love for us.   He was explanatory and patient with Philip on the occasion of the preceding statement of John 14:9. But He was definitive by asking Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’”? (Jn 14:9). Philip was thinking physical. Jesus was focusing on the heart of God. God’s heart was revealed through the loving Jesus who was standing in their midst. We see the heart of God through Jesus, and thus yearn to be in the presence of that heart in eternal glory. And when we understand what Jesus left for us through the incarnation, our hearts are more than touched. They are forever changed. The entire focus of our lives is changed from that which is of this world to that which is above and beyond. No human relationships or possessions will detour those who have truly discovered the heart of God that was manifested through Jesus.

So we stood beside the graves of so many in Kuruman, South Africa whose hearts had been touched by the revelation of the heart of God through Jesus. It was a moment of joy to experience such a testimony of those who had left so much because Jesus had left so much for them. There was nothing that the Father in heaven could ask of them that they would not have done because the Father through Jesus, held back nothing from them that was needed by them to be with Him.

[Next lecture in series: September 3]