Category Archives: Heart of God

Parable of the Heart of God

Jesus’ parable of Luke 15:11-32 is usually referred to as “the parable of the prodigal son.” But at the very beginning of the parable, Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons,and these two sons had a relationship as sons with their father (Lk 15:11). If Jesus’ intention were to speak only concerning the attitude and actions of the younger prodigal son, then He would have probably mentioned that the father had only one son who became a prodigal. The parable, however, involves the relationship of two sons with their father.

The fact that Jesus speaks of the behavior of both sons in relation to their father indicates that the lesson of the parable goes far beyond the behavior of either son. He wants us to discover the heart of our heavenly Father in the behavior of the father toward us as His sons.

Jesus wants us to see ourselves in the parable as we seek to reflect on our gospel living in our relationship with our Father.   This is truly a parable that takes us into the function of God’s heart that should be reflected in our lives as we live the gospel.

There are three ways by which we can live in this world: (1) religiously, (2) irreligiously, (3) or by the gospel. In this parable, Jesus illustrates religion through the behavior of the older brother. He illustrates irreligion through the behavior of the younger brother in the wilderness. In the illustrations of both behaviors, He seeks to unveil the heart of “gospel living” that was soon to be revealed to everyone in His audience through the gospel of the cross and resurrection. But in order for his audience to understand how one lives by the gospel after the nature of the heart of God, they must first see the inadequacy of their religious behavior.

In the parable, it was the ambition of both sons to secure the wealth of their father. Each approached the matter from different perspectives. Out of frustration, the younger son demanded the immediate reception of his inheritance, and then went on his way.   The other older son sought to secure his share of the father’s wealth by remaining in faithful obedience to the father.   As the parable reveals, one son lived very bad and squandered his inheritance. The other son lived very good in order to secure his share of the wealth of the father for his future. However, we must not miss the point of what Jesus was trying to say to His audience in reference to our Father’s relationship with us as His sons, regardless of how we come before Him. The father of the two sons emulated grace toward the sons who came before Him regardless of the former behavior of either son. We must never forget that our Father does the same to us.

In the parable, Jesus unveils the heart of God to which we seek to be close because we cannot resist His love to forgiveness. The father’s behavior, not the sons’, is the focus of the parable because Jesus seeks to reveal the forgiving heart of our heavenly Father. We are thus driven to live the gospel of grace because we would never merit the grace of God who is defined by love (1 Jn 4:8). We always have His favor (grace) because we are always His created sons. We must simply obediently live according to who He is and what we already have because of our origin from Him.

We must also keep in mind that Jesus was, through the parables, leading the people to the heart of God that would soon be revealed at His last Passover/Pentecost feast. With the example of the two brothers, He sought to reach out to everyone who would futility seek to be close to the Father solely on the merit of their own obedience. Therefore, in the behavior of both brothers, we discover ourselves in our efforts to receive meritoriously the “wealth” that is freely given by the Father through His grace. The parable focuses on the gospel of grace to which Jesus was leading His audience, and to which grace all must respond on the basis of total dependency on the Father. We cannot, as either the younger or older sons, leverage grace from God through any meritorious behavior on our part.   Grace is a free gift that is received only through experiencing its glorious nature.

Two key statements in the parable reveal the underlying motives of the two brothers in order to leverage a forgiving relationship with their father. The younger said to the father, “I am no more worthy to be called your son” (Lk 15:21). The older said to the father, I have never transgressed your commandment at any time” (Lk 15:29). Both brothers sought to establish their relationship with their father upon a wrong premise. Both based the foundation of their relationship with their father on meritorious behavior, whether repentance from bad behavior or faithful behavior in staying with the father.   One brother sought to restore his relationship with his father through meritorious repentance, and the other sought to maintain the same through the merit of his faithful adherence to the father’s commandments. Both misunderstood the heart of the father in the father’s relationship with his sons through grace. Grace is free, not earned. It is difficult for meritorious religionists to understand that our Father’s grace is always present for those who want to accept it. But we must not forget that God’s grace is not earned through meritorious obedience, neither through meritorious repentance to comply with self-imposed obedience to religious rites.

  1.  The younger brother:

 The saga of the story began with one son straying from the father and one son staying with the father. The younger son said to his father, “Father, give me the portion of the inheritance that falls to me” (Lk 15:12). And so the father handed over to him his inheritance.   The younger son then “gathered everything together and took his journey to a far country. And there he wasted his inheritance in wild living” (Lk 5:13). Fortunately, as many young men who have sought to spend some time in the wilderness, the younger brother “finally came to himself” after wasting all his inheritance. It was only then that he began to consider his predicament, and then, make a plan to change the environment of his circumstances (Lk 15:17).

Notice what the younger brother said upon his decision to return to his father: I am dying with hunger … I will arise and go to my father and will say ‘I have sinned … I am no more worthy’” (Lk 15:17-19).   He was certainly reflecting on what he had done and where he was. But his reflection was on what he would do in order to change the deplorable circumstances of his predicament. Because his focus was on what he would do in order to earn a reconciled relationship with his father, he sought a meritorious solution that was based on what he could do. “I will arise and go to my father” (Lk 15:18). This was not a repentant response to the “invitation song.” It was the response of one who only wanted to place himself in better circumstances that was based on his performance. He went back to the father to earn something for himself.

The younger brother’s problem was in the fact that he assumed that the father was obligated to receive him back on the merit of what he would do. Upon the merit of his return to be only a servant in his father’s fields, he sought to obligate the father to restore him to a meritorious relationship as a servant, but not as heir as a son. His “repentance” was only a return ticket to at least enjoy again the wealth of his father, even though it was from a distance as a meritorious servant in the servant fields.

Though the younger brother’s desire was commendable in knowing where to find a solution for his problems of life, it might be good to consider also the fact that his return to the father was still self-centered and meritorious. His repentance to servanthood was only an outward effort to earn a limited relationship with his father. Though he would return as a servant to work in his father’s fields, he was still comparing his existing situation of feeding pigs in the field with his father’s fields (Lk 15:15).

In order to change his predicament, the younger son assumed that he would simply change locations. Instead of changing his heart, the younger brother wanted to simply change locations from the pig fields to the father’s fields. His repentance to the servanthood of his father, therefore, was only an outward expression of an inward desire that still focused on himself. He was not dealing with the sin beneath the sin. He thought that if he could only earn a relationship with the father, then he would be right with his father on the basis of his servanthood. If he could “self-sanctify” himself through humble servanthood in doing good in the servant fields, then certainly he would have earned the right to be in a relationship with his father.

Changing his location was in his thinking, not changing his life-style by changing his heart. Changing from pig fields to the father’s fields did not change his heart.   His outward change was commendable.   However, unless he corrected the sin beneath the sin, he would be the same person in his father’s fields as a meritorious servant as was in the pig fields.

The younger son assumed that he would be forgiven by the father on the merit of his willingness to serve in his servants’ fields, even if it were service with his father’s servants. He sought to merit his acceptance by the father on the condition of his willingness to work only as a servant. He trusted that the father would thus forgive him on the merit of his willingness to serve in the humble location where only servants labor and not sons.

The younger son’s problem, therefore, goes deeper than being a good servant. The “repentant” younger son was willing to trade his sonship in order to be just a simple servant in the fields. He reasoned that if he would simply return to service, he would merit forgiveness from the father. His decision to return was based on being received back by the father only as a faithful servant, but not in the position of a son.

So when the younger son did return, he said to the father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son (Lk 15:21). The younger son forgot that no one is “worthy” to earn sonship from the father. Sonship is by birth and cannot be changed. It does not come through earning sonship. Doing better in one’s life is not a condition for sonship, for we can never do enough. The Holy Spirit reminds all of us:

The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Rm 8:16,17; see Gl 3:26-29; Ep 3:6).

The younger son wanted to obligate the father to at least make himself a worthy servant on the merit of his return to the father’s servant fields. He was seeking to earn his way back into the grace of his father as a servant only, forgetting that he was always a son regardless of his performance of the father’s commandments.

We sometimes forget that our location, or circumstances—pig fields or servant fields—will change our direction of life if we would only change locations. It is true that the pig fields will humble us to the point of repentance. We can have a changed mind in the midst of trying circumstances. But trying circumstances are no guarantee for a changed heart.   We forget that God is not expecting us to earn our way back into His heart. To Him, we never left. So for us, it is a matter of recognizing where we always were in His heart as His children by inheritance through creation.

The Gentiles, who would later hear this parable, needed to remember this. We are His sons in the peg fields, as well as in the fields wherein we should be as His sons. The heart of God is not limited to our location, neither is His love for us conditioned on how well we would perform as His servants. He still loves us while we are squandering ourselves away in wild living, or living close by religiously in faithful obedience.

The younger son had thus misread the father’s love. When this son returned, the father said, “And bring here the fattened calf and kill it. Let us eat and be merry, for this my son was dead and is alive again (Lk 15:23,24). The younger son was dead in his relationship with the father while he was in the pig fields. However, the father’s loving relationship with him had not changed when the son returned. The father’s love toward his son was never dead in his relationship with the son, for the son was always his son. Upon the son’s return, and before he could even speak one word, his father responded in his love for the son. “When he [the younger son] was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion. And he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him (Lk 15:20).

The younger son underestimated the heart of his father. And for this reason, he was not returning because he was drawn to his father’s heart, but for the purpose of removing himself from the pig fields. His bad experience had changed his mind, but not his heart. We might say that his repentance was initially in reference to changing his situation, rather than changing his heart. But when he experienced his father’s reception upon his return, it is then that we assume his heart was changed. When we experience the gospel of God’s heart, it is then that we truly understand the heart of our Father, and thus, we respond.

The younger son’s reception by the father, therefore, did not depend on the merit of the son’s behavior of returning to the father. The younger son could not merit himself back into the grace of his father, for the father would always receive a wayward son back as a true son and rightful heir.   This is simply the heart of a father in relation to all his sons. Being sorry for the bad things we do cannot limit the wealth of the grace that God is willing to pour out upon us. Grace is always there in abundance for us when we are ready to return.

We can only imagine the surprise of the younger son when the true heart of his father was revealed in his forgiveness.   The younger son had thought that he had given up his sonship. But the father’s grace was always there. The son was still the father’s son in the pig fields.   All the younger son had to do was to come back into the realm of his father’s heart. No meritorious conditions, as the younger son assumed, were necessary in order to receive the fattened calf and the celebration feast. No meritorious conditions were necessary to be worthy of the father’s sonship. The younger son did not earn the celebration for his return. It was always there for his return. The calf simply continued to fatten until the day the son returned.

2.  The older brother:

In their struggle to receive that which both sons so earnestly desired from the father, the very good and faithful older son may have been further away from the heart of the father than the younger son who took his wealth and ran away to a far land. The older brother was far away from the heart of his father because he thought he was so close.

In another parable Jesus spoke of the old brother: “Now He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised [judged] others” (Lk 18:9).   As the Pharisee in the parable, the old brother would say to the father in reference to the younger brother, “God, I thank You that I am not as other men” (Lk 18:11). The Pharisee boasted of his obedience in comparison to the wayward ways of the tax collector: “I fast twice a week.” The Pharisee bragged. “I give tithes of all that I possess” (Lk 18:12). The conclusion to the behavior of the older brother’s attitude would be as Jesus concluded the parable concerning the self-righteous religionist:

I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down in his house justified rather than the other [self-righteous Pharisee]. For everyone who exalts himself will be abased. And he who humbles himself will be exalted (Lk 18:14).

It is difficult to repent of self-righteousness. It is difficult to turn from one’s confidence in his own self-righteous goodness.   The self-confident religionist finds confidence in his religious experiences and legalies. He prides himself in an assortment of self-proclaimed self-righteous deeds that he has faithfully performed and bad things he has not done. But in all these merits of self-righteousness, he has forgotten that living the gospel begins first by recognizing the inadequacy of our meritorious spirituality, which is simply religion in action.

The older brother had forgotten that grace teaches us to stay close to the Father because we want to live in appreciation of the father’s grace. The grace of the Father teaches us that He has always stayed with us, even while we were in sin (See Rm 5:8). But to stay close to the Father, it is not that we stay there because we are so obedient to the commandments of the Father, but because it is there that we find grace for our dysfunctional obedience. Our confession of our violations of His commandments is what keeps us close to the heart of God (See 1 Jn 1:6-10).

When this son heard the noise of the celebrations for the returned brother, “He became angry (Lk 15:28).   His anger revealed the self-righteousness of his heart and moralism by which he judged his younger brother. He complained to the father, “I have been serving you. I have never transgressed your commandment at any time” (Lk 15:29).

He had sought the father’s approval and wealth on the basis of his own faithful behavior as a true son. He thus sought to obligate the father through his own good behavior as a faithful son. He too forgot something that is essential to being a faithful son. He based his faithfulness on his meritorious obedience as a son. He subsequently compared his obedience morally to that of his wayward younger brother. He reasoned that faithful obedience should be rewarded.   He forgot, however, that the father also loved him because he was his son, just as he had always loved the younger son who had just returned from disobedience.

Herein was revealed the self-righteousness of those Jews who thought they had an advantage with the heavenly Father over the Gentiles because of their meritorious obedience. Jesus thus cautioned His disciples in view of the self-righteous religionists among them: “Take heed that the light that is in you is not darkness” (Lk 11:35). “Therefore, let him who thinks he stands [in his own self-righteousness] take heed lest he fall” (1 Co 10:12). “For they [the self-righteous] 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). And for this reason, Jesus, as in this parable, spoke to self-righteous religionists “in parables because seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Mt 13:13).

Because of his “self-righteous faithfulness,” the older brother, as the Pharisees, placed himself in a position of being a moral judge of the younger brother. Descendants of the older brother today would be saying to the descendants of the younger brother, “We have faithfully attended the assemblies of the saints. We have faithfully partaken of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. We gave our contribution, and we prayed and read our Bibles daily. We even performed orderly assemblies according to an outline for assembly in our Father’s house. And we add to this that we have not done bad things as others have. We have not strayed, but stayed.”

In our “faithful” and supposed perfect performance of the Father’s commandments, we too are seeking to continue our sonship with the Father. And by doing such, we seek to obligate God to respond to the performance of our faithfulness. In our self-righteously established sonship we seek to establish ourselves, as the older brother, as moral judges of all the younger brothers who have done this or that which we judge to be contrary to our moral and doctrinal code of brotherhood that we have self-righteously established for ourselves. Because of our supposed righteouness, we have convinced ourselves that we have earned the right to morally judge. We seem to forget this statement by the Holy Spirit: “For Christ is the end of law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rm 10:4). In establishing our own self-righteousness, we have ignored the righteousness of God.

The error of the elder brother was that he trusted in the performance of his obedience to the Father’s will, and thus, he became a moralistic judge who condescended to the “issues” of the younger brother. Descendants of the older brother see issues everywhere by which they would judge their other brothers. They denominate themselves aside as a unique sect of moral judges who would cast judgment on all those who do not conform to the standard of their religious rites. They forget that the Father has other sons living out there in the wilderness of religion for whom He is waiting to return to His loving grace.

It is important, therefore, that the older brothers do not denominate themselves into a unique religion of rites to which they would seek to convert others. Older brother Christians must not deceive themselves into believing that they have earned the right to judge others. We must remember that when we invite others to come to the Lord, that we are not inviting them to join our denomination of moral judges. Our invitation to others must not be to “our religion of judges,” but to the grace of God that exists apart from religious performances that are created after our own desires.

Older brothers are often blinded by their own religious self-sanctification by which they seek to obligate the Father to reward their faithfulness with a fattened calf. In making a moral judgment against his wayward younger brother, the older brother thought he had earned the father’s favor. And in doing so, he shought to move the father’s favor away from the younger, or at least put restrictions on the younger in order to guarantee through religious rites his own acceptance by the father. His anger originated out of his heart when he compared his own self-righteous faithfulness with the unrighteous behavior of his younger brother. But in his jealous comparison, he found himself with an unrighteous heart of anger.

In our efforts to be righteous before God, we must be cautioned that we do not assume that our behavior puts the Father in debt to reward us. We must remember that we are His sons by grace. This is the message of the gospel. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God (Ep 2:8).

When we live the gospel of grace, we are of the heart of our Father who is seeking to throw a feast for all his sons, wherever they may be. As those who are invited guests to this feast of celebration, we must go out and compel others to come. The Father says, “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in so that my house may be filled” (Lk 14:23; see 14:15-24). Now we know why the older self-righteous and religiously contented brother never went searching for his young brother while he was in the pig fields. When we are content with our own self-righteousness, we are not moved to go looking around in in pig pens.

[End of series. The book entitle, The Gospel of God’s Heart, will be forthcoming.]

Gospel Living

There is a difference between believing in the resurrection as just another doctrinal point on a legal outline of doctrine, and living the resurrection as the gospel of our lives. If we base our faith only on accepting the fact of the resurrection, but can never get it off the pages of our legal outline and into our behavior, then our hearts go untouched and our lives unchanged. It is our challenge as students of the word of God to lift our knowledge of the resurrection off the pages of the Bible and translate it into our hearts. It is only then that our behavior will be transformed into the image of the incarnate Son of God.

It is here that those who approach the Bible from a legal point of view of knowledge only will have some difficulty.   However, the experientialist too has the same difficulty in allowing the gospel to be a life-changing experience.   Both the religious legalist and experientialist often minimize the work of the gospel in our lives.

The experientialist assumes that religion is about him. Having emotional experiences are to be enjoyed for the purpose of receiving some satisfaction from one’s faith, or validating one’s relationship with God. But in all our experientialism, the gospel is minimized as the heart of our faith, and thus, the impetus for godly behavior. In other words, as experientialists, we seek to generate an emotional experience for the purpose of validating our faith.   And if our faith is validated solely by emotional experiences, then there is little need for the historical gospel as the foundation for our faith. Gospel, therefore, as a life-controlling revelation of the heart of God becomes a side issue.

As the preacher seeks to validate his existence through legal biblicism and speaking skills, the experientialist is doing the same in reference to his existence as a believer. The biblicist goes to Bible school in order to learn precisely his “combat manual” (the Bible) in order that his answers for his faith are validated with a “book-chapter-verse.” The experientialist goes to the assembly every week in order to validate his faith through an out-of-control experience that he assumes comes from the Holy Spirit. His hope is that the Holy Spirit shows up at the same time on Sunday morning as he does in order to validate his faith.

The biblicist is self-oriented because he seeks to win the arguments. The experientialist is self-oriented because he seeks an emotional experience that seemingly proves that his faith is valid. Unfortunately, both the biblicist and the experientialist are missing the power of the heart of God that is unleashed in our lives through the gospel. Their motivation for religious behavior is self-centered, not gospel centered. If it were gospel centered, then it would be first and totally focused on Jesus. This is why those who would emotionally cry out “Lord, Lord” (“Jesus, Jesus”) often miss the power of the gospel that is manifested in one’s life through obedience to the commandments of God (See Mt 7:21).

A good example to better understand where one is in thinking in reference this point is how contributions (giving) are generated in one’s life. The legalistic biblicist will quote scripture after scripture, precept upon precept, that one must give his money to God. The audience responds with tokens in contribution in order to feel that they have legally complied with the commandments to give. The contributors, therefore, give on the basis that they will sanctify themselves holy if they would only release their money into the collection plate. Since their money is the security of their lives, they are cautious about relinquishing too much of their security.

This helps us understand why legalistic churches view 1 Corinthians 16:1,2 as a legality for contributions every Sunday, and why the gospel starved Corinthians were having problems in this area. In the New Testament, contributions were always for special needs, though often collected conveniently on the first day of the week. Even the contribution of Sunday in 1 Corinthians 16 was for a special need. But the legalist has a difficult time understanding what Paul said in verse 2, “… so that there be no contributions when I come.”

While Paul was in Corinth for Sundays after writing 1 Corinthians 16:1,2, there were to be no contributions made on the “first day of the week” while he was there. Since the legalist has made a law out of Sunday morning contributions, with 1 Corinthians 16:1,2 being the prooftext, he has moved free-will sacrificial offerings that are given out of the motivation of the gospel in our lives.   The Sunday morning contribution is convenient, but one should not feel guilty because he or she has nothing to put into the collection tray when it passes by. Law would produce guilt in such a situation, but grace would produce peace of mind.

If we approach 1 Corinthians 16:1,2 from a legal perspective in order to identify an “act of worship,” then we will have difficulty understanding that giving must come from the heart, not from a legal compliance to law. In fact, the “grudging giver” that Paul identifies in his second letter to the Corinthians, is actually the one who would be giving out of obligation in order to keep law (See 2 Co 9:5). The result is that he has the desire to hold back as much as possible in order to protect his financial security.

Legalists are always grudging givers. They are cheerful givers only when they have calculated that they can give a certain amount of their security, while holding back enough for security reasons (See At 5:1-4). If one gives out of this motivation, then he will not understand why the poor widow during Jesus’ ministry gave her last two coins (See Lk 21:1-4). The legalistic giver simply feels legally compliant and guilt free by flipping in the collection tray only a coin, or possibly a great deal of money in comparison to the poor.   However, the one who has been touched in the heart by the heart of a giving God will put in his or her last two coins.

On the other hand, the experiential preacher generates hysteria in the audience, and then proclaims that the people are all “robbing God.” The people then emotionally respond out of guilt because they do not want to be “God robbers.” The focus of their giving, as the legal biblicist, is also focused on themselves, and thus, his giving is also from a motive of self-sanctification.

Add to the self-sanctifying motives that are generated by both the legal biblicist and experientialist, the self-enrichment theology that “God will bless you if you give to Him.” This theology is not only carnal and self-oriented, it is totally contrary to the gospel living that was behaved throughout the ministry of the incarnate Son of God. Those self-oriented religionists who teach that giving is some sort of “investment plan” need to take another look at the foundation upon which they have established their religion. We see none of this in the lives of those in the first century who responded to and lived the gospel.

What the legal biblicist and experientialist have done is generate legal, guilt-ridden, and selfish reasons for relinquishing their security, that is, their money. But suppose for a moment that the people were touched by the heart of the One who became poor in all things on our behalf (See Ph 2:5-9).   This poverty stricken incarnate Son lived without His own house throughout His earthly ministry. He had no money to buy food, and thus all food had to be given to Him during His ministry. He had no closet full of robes and shoes. He had only one robe, and laid his head down for sleep at night in numerous beds that were not his own. He traveled around in Palestine, not on a “Mercedes” camel, but with feet on which were worn out sandals.

Having been born in a barn, He went out of this world in death in a borrowed tomb. In all this poverty, He gave; He gave the totality of His incarnate life for us who claim to be His disciples. And when we consider the eternal incarnation of His sacrifice, His giving was far beyond what we could possibly do in repayment. He was the revealed heart of God who asks only that we respond to His eternally sacrificed body that was viewed on a wooden cross outside Jerusalem.

And now we understand why it was said of those first respondents on the A.D. 30 Pentecost, “Now all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they sold their possessions and goods and divided them to all, as anyone had need” (At 2:44,45). And now we know that after being Christians for only a few days (At 16:12), the Philippian disciples lived the gospel by sending support to Paul: “For even in Thessalonica you [Philippians] sent once and again for my needs (Ph 4:16; see 4:15,16). We understand why these new disciples impoverished themselves for the sake of others who were in need. Read the legacy below about those Macedonian Christians—including the Philippians—who lived the gospel for the sake of others:

Moreover, brethren, we make known to you the grace of God that has been given to the churches of Macedonia, that in a great trial of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty, abounded in the riches of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability they gave of their own accord (2 Co 8:1-3).

When the gospel (grace) of the heart of God penetrates the heart of a disciple of Jesus, as it did the Macedonians, there is no need to beg for contributions. Giving is simply the natural response of those who realized that so much has been given to them through the gospel. When we live the gospel, we do as God did for us through the incarnational offering of His Son. Those who hold up on their giving because of a fear of losing their financial security, have not yet given themselves fully over to the security of the gospel.   They are not yet standing on the gospel which they have received (1 Co 15:1).

We would conclude this thought with a statement that is probably a sarcasm by which the Holy Spirit sought to embarrass some rich Jewish Christians. First consider the dictionary definition of a sarcasm: “A taunting, sneering, cutting, or caustic remark; a gibe or jeer, generally ironical.”

Now consider this definition in the context of those to whom James wrote. The rich in his audience were rebuked with the warning, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you” (Js 5:4). These were those about whom James judged to be fraudulent: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who have mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out against you (Js 5:4).   These rich had been so brazen in their fraudulent behavior that they cheated their laborers by holding back their salaries. Many of those who were the recipients of the letter of James were these fraudulent religionists.

These self-reliant religionists, who found security in their finances, claimed to be disciples of the Poor Preacher from Galilee who was buried in a borrowed tomb. Now we are in the context of James’ audience and his task to shame those who claimed to live the gospel, but persisted in basing their security on their wealth.

In order to understand James’ sarcasm that he gives in James 1:27, we must compared what those, who were first touched by the gospel, did in their relationships among themselves. As the number of the disciples was increasing in Jerusalem in the early years, it was only natural that the disciples take care of the widows among them (See At 6:1-6). Some problems developed because a group of Grecian widows were forgotten in the daily distribution of what was regularly contributed for the widows.   The problem was solved, and the body of believers carried on. One of those who was chosen to administer the contribution to the widows was Stephen, a man who was “full of grace (At 6:8). He was full of and driven by the gospel of grace, and thus, he was one whom the disciples could see in his life that he was driven by the heart of God.

Now consider the rich religionists to whom James wrote. They were not filled with the gospel of grace, and thus, they behaved fraudulently. They did not allow the grace of God to teach them anything about gospel relationships. The gospel was not the motivation of their hearts. James wanted to remind them that the gospel moves our behavior beyond religion. So James taunted them with something that even in the society of religious people who did not believe the gospel would do out of common decency. Even the religious idolaters would take care of orphans and widows.   So if these self-proclaimed religionists to whom James wrote, who sought to live under the name of Jesus, simply claimed to be religious, then they would do the same. But they did not. So James possibly wrote with sarcasm the following statement,

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this, to take care of the orphans and windows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (Js 1:27).

James was essentially saying the same to these “faith only” rich as those about whom Paul wrote: “If anyone does not provide for his own, especially for those of his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tm 5:8).

The concept of religion in all its forms in the Bible are negative. In the Old Testament religion is referred to as idolatry. The use of the word “religion” by James—the only place it is used in the New Testament—would be the same as the idolater who has created a religion after his own desires, which thing some in James’ audience were trying to do. They idolized their money (See Cl 3:5; 1 Tm 6:10). They had assumed that they were Christians, but they were not even being good religionists in their “faith only” thinking (See Js 2:14-26).

We would conclude that in the context of James’ audience, the word “religion” is used in a negative sense. James was taunting the rich. If they would at least identify themselves as religious, then certainly they would at least take care of orphans and widows. Even unbelieving idolaters do this. But the rich in James’ audience were not doing this simply because James wrote the exhortation to take care of these needy people. The rich were posing to be religious without giving even to orphans and widows.


When the gospel of the heart of God penetrates to the heart of man, we respond as the early disciples who naturally made provision for the orphans and widows among them. At least the most shallow believer would take care of orphans and widows. If one would claim any religiosity at all, it would be reflected in his or her care for orphans and widows.

Taking care of the poor is our identity with the poverty of the One who made Himself poor by giving up being on an equality with God and humbling Himself to be incarnate in the likeness of man. He willingly gave up His security in heaven, for the insecurity of this world. He asks no less of us. It is for this reason that the Bible is all about the gospel of the heart of God, for when we discover the heart of our Father in the gospel, money loses its personal security. Money becomes the instrument by which we can express the gospel in our own lives as He expressed the gospel from the cross. This is what those on the day of Pentecost discovered immediately in one day. This is what the Philippians discovered in only a few days as Christians. This is what was reflected in the lives of the Macedonians as they impoverished themselves on behalf of famine-stricken victims in Judea. We discover this gospel living when we freely give as He freely gave Himself to us.   Our giving freely, therefore, is the identity of our discipleship of Him who gave all for us. Gospel living assumes that one is a giver.

[Next lecture in series: October 3]

The Gospel Foundation

So if Christ were truly raised from the dead, then everything is changed. Lives are transformed (See 2 Co 3:18). Destinies are changed. Hope springs forth in the hearts of those who have lived in despair. Gospel living becomes the identity of those who believe the gospel.

The gospel of the resurrection remains the foundation upon which we emotionally stand (1 Co 15:1,2). The Bible is primarily about the gospel of the Son of God in order that we understand the eternal work of God through the incarnate and risen Christ. Corinth could sort out their ungodly behavior only if the resurrection penetrated to their hearts in order that they have the motive (heart) to change their behavior. When one understands the heart of God that is revealed through the gospel, he or she has the heart to live the gospel life.

Since the Bible is about the revelation of the heart of God through the gospel, then the legalist must step back for a moment and take another look at how he uses the Bible. The legalist usually considers the Bible a “combat manual” to win legal arguments in theological discussions. He preaches the Bible to establish “sound” doctrine in order that thinking be correct, regardless of behavior. He memorizes Bible passages in order to be ready to win any theological arguments that may come his way. All these things are honorable, but what the legalist must not forget is that his motive (heart) for preaching and confronting error is the gospel. If the motive for his use of the Bible is first based on reaffirming the gospel in his own life, then the reason for his use of the Bible changes. It changes from his use of the Bible to accomplish theological conquests to helping people to be transformed into the image of Christ (See Rm 12:1). He begins preaching Jesus and not prooftexts.

When the early disciples first received the gospel (1 Co 15:1), they had no Bibles. Even those on the A.D. 30 Pentecost had no New Testaments to study among themselves. When the early evangelists went about preaching the gospel, they carried no Bibles to be distributed among the people. The apostles laid hands on certain individuals in order to be blessed with the gift of knowledge (See At 8:18,19). But this blessing was limited to the presence of the apostles to distribute the miraculous gifts.

Therefore, to the astonishment of the legalist, the baptized disciples lived the transformed gospel life simply because they based their faith on the foundation of the gospel. What transformed their lives was the message of the gospel, not the memorization of a host of scriptures, or even daily Bible reading, for there were no Bibles. They sacrificially lived the gospel without some organizational structure of religion.   The book of Acts is actually a history of the work of the gospel at work to transform lives, as well as lead lives.   And all the time, we have been using the book of Acts to find “prooftexts” in order to win this or that theological argument with “the denominations.” In all our biblicism, we have lost the heart for godly living in our scurried search to find prooftexts to win arguments. A teacher of the Bible will be more effective in changing the thinking of others when he allows the gospel to transform his own life.

In view of the preceding, consider what Peter said in 1 Peter 3:15 would be the impetus that would inspire people to ask questions concerning our hope. As we read through this statement, we see gospel living as the spark that inspires inquiry:

But sanctify Christ as Lord God in your hearts and be ready always to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear.

Those who sanctify in their hearts the One who gave up being on an equality with God, will not give an arrogant answer to those who ask him questions concerning his hope. Answers will always be “with meekness and fear” by those who have in their hearts the incarnate Son of God. And because we live by the gospel, others are inspired to ask why we are motivated to so live. The Bible is about defending the gospel of Jesus because the gospel is the primary foundation of our living. Christians who live the heart of God always have inquiries directed to them concerning their hope. People seek to know what makes Christians behave as they do.

When we understand that the gospel must be the totality of our world view and motivation for our behavior, it is then that we begin to understand that answering inquiries concerning our hope is simple. Our answer is not based on knowing a catalog of appropriate scriptures, nor what we consider to be the best translation of the Bible. It is based on the message of the gospel and how effectively we have translated the gospel into our lives.

We can think of a host of questions that the world today often asks the Christian. For an example of one, a common question that is directed to Christians today is his or her belief concerning homosexuality. The answer to this commonly asked question is simple. Our first response to this question would be, “Was Jesus raised from the dead?” If Jesus were not raised from the death, then we have the right to live as we please. Paul said it this way: “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Co 15:32). If the dead are not raised, then we have a right to live as homosexuals, or in any manner we so choose, as long as we can get away with it within our society.

The question, therefore, is not about homosexuality. It is about the gospel.   If indeed Jesus were raised from the dead, then everything changes in our lives. It is then that we must consult His word for direction.   Otherwise, His word means nothing, because Jesus would have been just another good religious man of history.

Paul concluded his logical arguments concerning the centrality of the resurrection to the gospel message with the following statement to the Corinthians:

Be not deceived, evil company [with those who deny the resurrection], corrupts good morals. Awake to righteousness and do not sin, for some have no knowledge of God [through the gospel]. I speak this to your shame (1 Co 15:33,34).

Paul warned Timothy of some who taught that there was no more resurrection (See 2 Tm 2:17,18).   Believing the gospel should lead to an increase of ungodliness (2 Tm 2:16). If one does not believe in the resurrection, then his faith is overthrown (2 Tm 2:18). But if the gospel is believed, and obeyed, then there is a paradigm shift in one’s behavior. The changed is so drastic that one’s closest friends will ask consider what is happening in the transformed life of their friend.

[Next lecture in series: October 2]

All About Jesus

It often requires a readjustment of thinking to learn that the Bible is not first about us. It is first about the gospel of Jesus who is the incarnational offering of God in order to bring us into His company and prepare us for eternity.   The following text turns a light on in our thinking concerning this truth:

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live sensibly, righteously and godly in this present age, looking for the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us(Tit 2:11-14).

This one passage defines the world view of the Christian. In this statement, the word “grace” sums up the totality of all that God did on our behalf in order to accomplish His eternal plan. Grace reveals the summation for the purpose of this world. This is the gospel. This is the world view by which Christians live the gospel. And thus, Paul personifies this grace as our “instructor” concerning how we are to live in this world in preparation for that which is to come.

In the statement, it is grace (the gospel) that does the teaching. Or better, it is grace that gives us the motive to “live sensibly ….”   It is the gospel of grace that is the motive to look “for the blessed hope and glorious appearing [of Jesus] ….” It is the gospel that is deep in our hearts that controls our thinking and behavior in order that we be prepared, not just for the coming of Jesus, but also that we be morally refocused in our hearts in order to dwell in eternity in the presence of His Holiness. Only by submitting to the “instruction” of grace can all this happen when He comes again.

The gospel is the underlying motivation that gives us a reason to deny “ungodliness and worldly lusts” in order that we look for the coming of the incarnational and resurrected “Savior Christ Jesus.” The gospel inspires us to change our lives, and then have hope for a better environment of existence in the presence of our heavenly Father. It was this grace into which the prophets of old searched diligently to discover (1 Pt 1:10-12). We have been so fortunate that it was revealed in this last dispensation of time on earth (See Ep 3:3-5).

 “By faith Abraham … was looking for a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hb 11:8,10). Our faith in all that the gospel of Jesus is turns our minds away from worldly lusts in order to yearn for a heavenly habitation in the presence of God. The purpose of the entire Bible, therefore, is based on defining the gospel as our motive by which we would live in the present in preparation for the future.

The Holy Spirit states this purpose in other words to the Colossians: If you then were raised with Christ, seek those things that are above …. Set your mind on things above …” (Cl 3:1,2). The exhortation means that by faith we go down into the tomb of water with Jesus, but then we are “raised with Christ.” Paul questions why some in Colosse would be buried and resurrected with Christ if kept focusing on living the immoral life. His argument is that gospel obedience assumes gospel living.

Paul said this in a similar question that he posed to some Corinthians who believed that Christ was not raised from dead: “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” (1 Co 15:29; see Rm 6:3-6). The rational conclusion for the Corinthians was that in their recognition of being the old dead man in sin before their obedience to the gospel, why were they baptized to put away the old dead man if they discontinued believing in the resurrection?

Paul’s questions to both the Colossians and Corinthians were based on the truth of the gospel. If they responded to the gospel by being baptized into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, then why would they seek to live according to the world in which they were dead in sin?

When we were dead in trespasses and sin (Ep 2:1,2), we heard the gospel, and then believed in the good news of the resurrection.   We were then moved on to “seek those things that are above.” It is the Bible that gives us this information, and thus the purpose of the Bible is to increase our faith in the incarnational work of the Father through Jesus in order that we grow in faith, for “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rm 10:17).

It is now that we understand what Peter was encouraging us to do in 2 Peter 3:18: “But grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We are encouraged to study the Bible in order to understand better the grace (gospel) of God that teaches us to live a godly life. We study the Bible in order that we may know more about “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We thus study in order to understand His work through the gospel to bring us into His eternal presence. The more we learn about the gospel, the more the gospel (God’s grace) activates a gospel walk of gratitude. The Bible, therefore, is first about that in which we must base our motivate (heart) in order to be directed in our living the gospel.

Some of the disciples in Achaia, especially in the city of Corinth, were questioning the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.   Therefore, it is not unusual that the greatest text on the resurrection of Jesus was placed in a letter that deals with so many problems in the relationships of Christians with one another.   Problems concerning dysfunctional and ungodly attitudes and behavior permeated the Corinthian church. The reason for this was based squarely on the denial of the resurrection by some in Corinth who were attacking this fundamental motive for gospel living. They were denying the resurrection of Jesus, and thus, removing the motive for living according to the gospel. Paul frankly stated, “Now if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is vain” (1 Co 15:17). In fact, he eventually comes to the point in his rebuke of those who denied the resurrection by saying that the Christina life is useless if there is no resurrection.

 If there were no resurrection in the gospel message, then there is no impetus for godly living. It was in reference to this subject that Paul again was laboring for them as a father over an immature child. He had written similar words to the Galatians: “My little children for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you …” (Gl 4:19). The gospel of Christ had not yet been formed in the hearts of some Corinthians, and the result was dysfunctional behavior.

If there is no such thing as a resurrection of the dead, “then Christ has not been raised” (1 Co 15:16). And if Christ was not raised, “then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Co 15:18). And thus, “we are of all men most to be pitied” for a foolish belief in a resurrection (1 Co 15:19).

The foundation upon which our behavior, as disciples of Jesus is founded, is the resurrection. It was by Jesus’ resurrection that He was proved to be the Son of God (Rm 1:4), and thus, we behave in a godly manner because we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. We know that we will eventually give account for our behavior because He was raised from the dead. Therefore, 2 Corinthians 5:10 must bring us to attention:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of [the risen] Christ, so that everyone may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

 [Next lecture in series: October 1]

The Cleansing Blood

If we are feeling stained with sin, then we must be sure to make your way to the totality of the gospel.

The cross of Jesus deals with legal matters between ourselves and God. Through the gospel of grace, God dealt with the matter of our inability to legally stand just before Him. God knew this inability before He created us, and thus, He revealed at the cross His justice in creating us, for the cross happened in order “to declare at this time,” Paul wrote, His righteousness that He might be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus (Rm 3:26).

Because we could never legally make ourselves right before Him through perfect keeping of law, sacrificial offering of Jesus had to be by grace, and grace had to be free. It could not be earned, for that would throw us back into the futility again of trying to earn our salvation through law-keeping. We would not, therefore, ever consider establishing another law system by which we would seek to justify ourselves before God. Neither would we seek to establish a religious system of church righteousness by which we would seek to earn the grace of God, or even obligate God to make the incarnational sacrifice of His Son.


God’s righteousness worked on our behalf because of the sanctification that came through the blood of the incarnate Son of God.   When we study through this subject, there is one point that must be clearly understood. Paul explained, For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gl 3:26,27).

When any biblical subject is discussed that uses the phrase “into Christ,” or “in Christ,” we must always understand that one comes into a relationship with Christ through his or her obedience to the gospel by immersion into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Too many people confuse themselves and others by ignoring how one becomes justified by the washing away of all sins (See At 22:16). We must simply keep in mind that faith without action is dead. And we have already explained that baptism can never be a meritorious work of law.   We must also remember that faith can never stand along without obedience to the will of God, especially when discussing the subject of obedience to the gospel (See 2 Th 1:6-9; 1 Pt 4:17).

In reference to sanctification, Paul addressed the letter of 1 Corinthians “to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Co 1:2). These were previously sin-stained people who lived in the bondage of sin. “Such were some of you,” Paul reminded Corinthians.But you were washed.   But you were sanctified. But you were justified …” (1 Co 6:11).   Because they were justified, and cleaned up through the blood of Jesus when they were baptized in order to wash away all their sins (At 22:16), they were now in a sanctified relationship with Christ because they had been baptized into Christ.

There is no magic in the waters of baptism.   There is no saving power in the action of immersion. All the magic and power resides in the cleansing blood of the gospel. Herein is the power of the gospel (Rm 1:16).   It is the blood of the incarnate Son of God that accomplishes the cleansing of those who come into Christ through the waters of baptism. Hebrew 10 is critical in explaining this truth. The principle upon which the Hebrew writer wrote was, “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hb 10:10).

The incarnational offering that was revealed at the cross was good news. It was an offering that terminated all offerings for sin (See Hb 7:27). But even more encouraging is the verb that the Hebrew writer used to explain the results of Jesus’ sin offering for us. We “have been sanctified.” The verb is passive. We have been “acted upon” by Jesus in order to be washed clean of all sin.   At the cross, Jesus acted upon our death in sin in order that we be cleansed and made presentable to the Father at the time of our immersion into Christ. Jude’s final words are encouraging:

Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord (Jd 24,25).

The Hebrew writer continued to explain to his readers: For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified (Hb 10:14). Those to whom he was writing had been “acted upon” by Jesus through the cross, and thus “perfect” in Christ. The sanctifying power of the cross continued “perfecting” even to the day the Hebrew writer was inscribing these words. Every time someone is baptized for remission of sins (At 2:38), therefore, the sanctifying blood of Jesus, that was poured forth from the cross, begins to flow throughout their faithful gospel living in order to cleanse them of sin. “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light … the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn 1:7).

Now suppose we would seek to return to a religion that was similar to the legal Judaism from which Paul, Peter and the early Jews fled? When they discovered the gospel of grace, they left their efforts to justify themselves through obedience to the religion of their fathers. When they saw the justification of the cross through the sanctifying blood of Jesus, they fled from the old Jewish self-righteousness and animal sacrifices.

The Hebrew writer was inscribing his words of exhortation to some Jewish Christians who were seeking to return to a religious system of self-justification through law. And today, there are those who have unknowingly established the same for themselves through church righteousness. They assume by their obedience to “church law” that they too can be justified by faithful obedience to “the church,” thinking that “the church” saves apart from the power of the gospel. This is the same as returning, as some of the Jewish Christians, to a religious system of self-justification and sanctification through meritorious works or performances of Judaism. But notice what the Hebrew writer continued to say about such efforts:

Of how much severer punishment do you suppose will he be thought worthy who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and has counted as a common thing the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hb 10:29).

All who would seek to establish a meritorious religious system by which they would seek to be self-justified by religious performances of the “church,” or meritorious sanctification through works of the “church,” should seriously consider this question that the Holy Spirit posed through the Hebrew writer. We might think that our obedience to the “church” is necessary in order to supplement the gospel, but in doing so, we have “trodden under foot the Son of God.” We have “counted as a common thing the blood of the covenant” by which we have been totally sanctified. We must remember that the “church” saves no one. We are saved by the gospel, not by “church.”

When the church is relegate to religion, we are making efforts to sanctify ourselves apart from the blood of the gospel.   Religion is thus a denial of the sufficiency of the gospel. Since all religion exists because of man’s efforts to choose his own way into the grace of God, one’s way to the cross is detoured through the maze of the religious performances of men to prove one’s own worth before God. If we seek to bypass the sufficiency of the cleansing blood of the gospel with our own performances of religion, then we have shamed the Holy Spirit, and counted the blood of the cross an insufficient effort on the part of God to cleanse us of our sins.

The cleansing of our sins is something that God does. God has chosen us for salvation “through sanctification of spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Th 2:13). We were sanctified by Him (1 Co 6:11). If we try to do God’s job in reference to our sanctification, then we are bypassing His work at the cross, and the continual cleansing work of the blood of His Son. Christians are the sanctified (Hb 2:11). But their cleansing was the work of God, not a debt paid to them because of their meritorious accomplishments in performed religiosity. If we seek to be self-justified through self-sanctification, then we nullify the gospel.

Through the cross, God set aside perfect law-keeping as a condition to stand just before Him. In reference to our sin problem, He washed us of sin in the blood of His Son. If we seek His justification through the efforts of self-sanctification in religious performances, then we have denied the effect of the gospel. We have trodden under foot the Son of God and counted His shed blood a common thing.

We would not, therefore, misunderstand what Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 4:3,4:

For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that you should abstain from fornication; that every one of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor ….”

 We do not abstain in order to be sanctified.   We abstain from the works of the flesh because we are sanctified. If we were to abstain in order to become sanctified, then we would meritoriously be seeking justification before God on the merit of what we did or did not do.   And the fact is that we can never do anything perfectly.

Our sanctification by the blood of Jesus at the cross does not mean that we will live sinless after we have been washed in His blood at the time of baptism. If we say we can live without sin, then God says we are liars (1 Jn 1:6).   But if we continue to respond positively to the grace of God in our lives by living the gospel of Jesus, then “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7).   We walk the life of thanksgiving, therefore, because of the cleansing that we have received through the gospel of Jesus.

The sanctifying blood of Jesus was not held up at the cross. The cross was only the fountain that released the cleansing power the blood of Jesus upon all those throughout all history who would obey and walk in the gospel of the Son of God.

[Next lecture in series: September 30]


Law Condemns – Faith Saves

We need to remain standing beside the three thousand on the day of Pentecost in order to see ourselves condemned through law.   We must continue to listen through their ears and understand with their hearts. For once, we must extract our Western definition of the heart from the picture in order to understand why so many immediately understood the message of the gospel once all the prophecies were connected with all the events surrounding the death of Jesus and His resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. It is only then when we stand in their shoes do we really comprehend the “heart nature” of the gospel that was preached and received on that day.

At least three thousand of those who attended the Pentecost of A.D. 30 understood one very important matter concerning law.   Paul revealed in two letters the principle that the three thousand immediately confessed, and consequently, stood forward to do what was needed in response to the gospel message. To the Galatians, Paul wrote as a Jew of his former conversion from law,

knowing that a man is not justified by works of law, but by the faith of Christ Jesus, even we [Peter and Paul] have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by works of law, for by works of law no flesh will be justified (Gl 2:16).

And then in another letter he wrote to the Roman Christians, “Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of law (Rm 3:28).

In order to understand the heart of God at the cross, it is imperative that we understand that with which the three thousand lived for centuries. When faithful Jews stood before the apostles on that notable day, they stood there with jaws dropped and joy in their hearts. They could not believe what they were hearing.

In the preceding Galatian statement of his own response to the gospel, Paul introduced a profound truth that was self-evident in reference to law. The Jews who were there on the day of Pentecost were not theologically ignorant.   They were the most dedicated of the world, for all of them had made a lengthy journey over hundreds of kilometers in order to be there for Passover and Pentecost. Some made the journey every year. We must not question their sincerity, nor their desire to be obedient to the law of God. But there was a self-evident problem in law that they all realized.

Notice the obvious conclusion to law-keeping that Paul made in the Galatian statement: “knowing that a man is not justified by works of law.” There was no need that this truth come to them through revelation. When Paul made this statement, he was speaking directly to Peter on behalf of all Jews and ourselves who seek to be obedient to God.   As a follow-up to this self-evident truth, Paul said to Peter, even we [faithful Jews] have believed in Christ Jesus.”

Peter was the Jew of Jews, for on the occasion of this incident he had withdrawn himself from the Gentile Christians in Antioch when the traditional Jews came up from Jerusalem. Paul himself had first persecuted Jewish Christians in Judea because he considered them apostates from Judaism. But when both Paul and Peter saw the heart of the gospel, they had to confess that their efforts all their lives to justify themselves through perfect obedience of law was a futile attempt of religiosity.   They were honest lawbreakers who knew that something was very wrong with their religion. Law was not the problem. For example, “the [Sinai] law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rm 7:12). The problem is with those to whom law is given, whether Jews or Gentiles, and now, even Christians.

All who were honest and sincere on Pentecost, realized that there was a flaw in the theology of justification by works of law and meritorious atonement through good works. In fact, Paul stated, “But that no one is justified by law in the sight of God is evident (Gl 3:11). It took no great understanding of the fallible obedience of man to come to this conclusion. This is an axiomatic truth in reference to law, a truth that is self-evident.

Those on the day of Pentecost realized for centuries that it is not within man to walk perfectly the road of righteousness that is based on man’s performance of law and good deeds. All break law. Enough good deeds could never be performed in order to atone for one sin. Therefore, the obvious conclusion was that there was never any atonement for lawbreakers through the offering of animal sacrifices or their own self-sanctification through good works (See Hb 10:1-4).

In the context of Paul’s arguments in both Romans and Galatians, it is significant to understand that the article “the” is not in the Greek text of Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:28 in reference to “law.” It has unfortunately been added by some translators. What Paul was writing was a truth that defined human inability: A man is not justified by works of law.”

By adding the article before the word “law,” some have evidently tried to take the pressure off ourselves as dysfunctional lawbreakers. By adding the article, we might conclude that Paul’s reference was only to the Sinai law. In the case of the Jews, this was true. But Abraham was justified by faith long before the Sinai law was given on Mt. Sinai. If Paul’s reference was only to the Sinai law, then we might conclude that we can devise a “law unto ourselves,” and subsequently, be justified by our own self-made law of righteousness, as some in Colosse were attempting to do. But without the article in the text, Paul would be moving the focus of the statement beyond Israel to all people who would seek to be justified before God through law. But it is simply impossible for any man to live perfectly before God through law-keeping, regardless of the law under which one might bring himself into submission.

In his arguments leading up to the Romans statement, Paul revealed that from the creation to the cross, the Gentiles lived under law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else excusing one another” (Rm 2:15). Because Paul did not use the article in these texts in reference to law, both Jews and Gentiles must recognize the principle that man cannot be justified before God by meritorious works of law. This principle applies to everyone, not simply to the Jews who lived under the Sinai law. It applies to anyone who might devise religious rites by which to justify themselves before God. It is simply a truth of honest hearts who recognize that there is no possible way for a man to justify himself legally before God through perfect obedience to law, “for by works of law no flesh will be justified.”

The problem, as previously stated, is not with law, but with man. The Hebrew writer reminded those who were seeking to return to a covenant of law, “For if that first [Sinai] covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them …” (Hb 8:6,7). The fault was not with the Sinai covenant, but with the people. The same principle is true today. Any religion that is based on a system of meritorious religious rites or law-keeping is simply useless in reference to producing reconciliation with God. The more one religiously seeks to be right through religious rites and perfect law-keeping, the further he moves himself away from being that which he seeks to be, that is, righteous before God.

Before any person would seek to establish laws by which they would consider themselves faithful before God, he must be honest with himself and confess the obvious truth that we are all lawbreakers. The honest Jews on Pentecost knew this in their hearts. They had followed their leaders’ traditions (laws) for years, knowing deep in their hearts that such religiosity was futile in reference to standing legally justified before God.   They knew that the Sinai law could not be kept perfectly. Those who would even consider the “law of Christ” to be a legal system of justification should remember this. They should lest we run to the New Testament in order to construct a legal system of law by which we would attempt to justify ourselves before God. Those who legalize the law of Christ are seeking to change Christianity into a religion of men, for in religion one focuses on his own ability to perform law in order to be justified before God, and not on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When Paul spoke of the “law of Christ” (Gl 6:2), he was not establishing again a legal system of justification under which the Jews were confined to live since Mt. Sinai. He was not promoting a paradigm shift from the legalities of the Sinai law to the same, but different, legalities under the “law of Christ.”   If one cannot be justified by legalities under any law, even the Sinai law, then there would also be no justification by the legalities of a supposed legal system of law in Christ. What was true under the old would also be true under the new. If there was no justification by perfect law-keeping under the old, then certainly the same inability on the part of man to perform perfectly stands true under the new.

What some have forgotten, in their efforts to make the law of Christ a legal system by which we would seek to justify ourselves before God, is that the law of Christ is what James explained it to be in James 1:25. It is the “perfect law of liberty.” The law of Christ liberates us from the demands of justification through law-keeping.   If one would seek to turn the law of Christ into a system of condemnation, whereby lawbreakers would seek to justify themselves before God, then Paul has an exhortation for them. It is an exhortation that concluded his arguments against such legal law-keepers in Galatia, but an encouragement for those who seek to walk by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ: “Stand fast therefore, in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage (Gl 5:1).

Paul considered it a very serious matter to think that we could justify ourselves before God through law. He considered it so serious that he made the following statement, You have been severed from Christ, you who seek to be justified by law. You have fallen from grace (Gl 5:4). These words should not be taken lightly.

The reason why one’s efforts to establish any system of law by which he would attempt to justify himself before God is discovered in the fact that such an effort is a denial of the heart of the gospel.   It is thus, the “other gospel” (Gl 1:6-9). The reason such is the “other gospel” is that self-justification, or church righteousness, denies the sufficiency of the incarnational sacrifice of the Son of God.

Paul wrote to the Roman disciples, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we will be saved from wrath through Him” (Rm 5:9). We are saved from the wrath of God through the cleansing blood of Jesus, not through our efforts to justify ourselves through perfect law-keeping. If we would revert to law-keeping in order to justify ourselves, then we have denied the gospel of the cross. We have sought to substitute our own works of righteousness for the effective cleansing blood of Jesus. We have denied our faith in the sufficiency of the atoning blood of the gospel.

On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, three thousand people immediately recognized a solution for which they had struggled for generations. The Jews had proven throughout their history the futility of justification through law-keeping. They had failed so many times throughout their history that they lived in a hopeless religiosity, knowing that surely God had something better. In an effort to find some assurance in their obedience to law, their religious leaders kept adding more statutes and precepts to the Sinai law in order to guarantee strict obedience. They added tradition upon tradition, precept upon precept. But all the additions were to no avail in solving a most evident truth, that by works of law no man could be justified before God. Their additions, therefore, became subtractions. They were subtracting themselves from faith in God to a faith in their own ability to supposedly live as perfect law-keepers.

But on that wonderful day over two thousand years ago, good news finally came. By the resurrection of the Son of God, it was proven true that the message of the grace of God through the atoning blood of the Son would bring them into the arms of God. When God’s heart burst forth through the incarnational sacrifice of His Son, there was a spontaneous explosion of obedience across the ancient world. Both Jews and Gentiles of faith, who had been struggling with the futility of self-justification, realized for the first time in history that they could be accepted into the realm of God’s righteousness through grace. It was a beautiful message. It still continues today.

We would be careful, therefore, not to construct a religiosity out of works that would annul the gospel. If we do, then we would be preaching another gospel that is foreign to the gospel of grace (See Gl 1:6-9). We must never forget the following words of Paul: “Therefore, having between justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ(Rm 5:1). Therefore, “being justified by His grace” we are “made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Ti 3:7).

[Next lecture in series: September 28]

The Incarnational Sacrifice

It is our quest to discover the heart of God at the cross. Since the descendants of Abraham in A.D. 30 had a two thousand year old illustration of the obedience of Abraham, who lived before the Sinai law was given, they were prepared to respond to the revelation of the heart of God at the cross. The cross was another offering of a son, but this time the offering had eternal consequences, for the sacrifice that was offered (the Son of God), and the ones for whom the sacrifice was made would carry on into eternity.

Only when we connect all the dots between Abraham and the cross do we understand what occurred when God gave the following command to Abraham:

Take now your son, your only son Isaac whom you love, and go into the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offing upon one of the mountains that I will tell you (Gn 22:2).

What seems so incomprehensible about Abraham’s response to this command of God is what is recorded in the following verse in the Genesis 22 text: “Then Abraham rose up early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Gn 22:3). There was no questioning by Abraham. There were no emotional arguments. No debates. There was not even a sleepless night, for the text states that he “rose up” from his bed (sleep). There was only obedience, and the obedience was without question. And for this reason, James wrote of the obedience of Abraham that he was justified by faith in the work of offering his son on the basis of his faith that God would take care of both himself and Isaac (Js 2:21).

What transpired on the occasion of the offering helps us venture into the heart of God at the cross, but also in reverse when we compare Abraham’s offering with the offering of the Father on the cross.   When Abraham raised his knife in obedience to the command of God to offer his son, God responded out of heaven with the command, “Do not lay your hand upon the lad …” (Gn 22:12).   Because God spared Abraham from carrying out the command to offer his son reveals the motive of God behind the command. God revealed His motive for the command in the following statement: Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from Me” (Gn 22:12).

Abraham’s obedience to offer his only son revealed his heart’s obedience to do all that God would ask of him. If we were to ask Abraham, “Is there anything that you would not do in order to be obedient to God?”, Abraham’s answer, that was validated by his obedience to offer his son, would be, “No.” In the obedience of Abraham, we understand the faith of Abraham. People of faith would not understand the reason why God made this command until two thousand years later.

For two millennia, the example of Abraham molded the hearts of those who would seek God. Those of faith would understand from Abraham that he would do all that was necessary in order to be obedient to his Father. When Paul used the example of Abraham being justified by faith, he was asking his readers to consider the faith of Abraham that moved him to be obedient to the Father in all areas of life.

The time eventually came in the history of Israel when the occasion to offer a son was reversed. The Jews understood the obedient heart of Abraham to do all that the Father asked. It was now time that they understand the “obedient” heart of God in reference to the offering of His Son on their behalf. Abraham had the heart of God because he offered his son without an explanation from God, nor a reward for doing so. In the same manner the Father “obediently” offered His Son on our behalf without conditions from us. The cross did not happen because of the requirements of law, for we could receive no law for God to demand the offering. God’s heart, therefore, was revealed at the cross unconditionally, and without His payment of some debt that He owed to those of faith who had worked meritoriously to demand the offering. The incarnation of the offering was the result of the deplorable problem of the sin of those of faith, not because those of faith had put any demands on God to make the offering.

In our sins we all cried out to our Father for redemption. The Father replied with unconditional love. He was “obedient” unto our cries. There was nothing He would not have done in order to bring us out of our deplorable condition of eternal death through sin so that we might be in His loving fellowship forever. This is the heart of God.

Did God have to act? Yes He did! He is a God of love (1 Jn 4:7). In this the love of God was manifested to us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him (1 Jn 4:9).

Abraham’s sacrifice that he was willing to offer would cost him his only begotten son. God’s sacrifice for us cost Him His only begotten Son. The difference between the two offerings was that there was no one greater than God who could hold back the cross in order that the nails of the crucifixion not be driven through the incarnate hands of the Son of God.   Because there was nothing greater to hold back God from the offering of His only begotten Son, then we begin to understand that the incarnational offering of the Son was truly the ultimate offering for our sins.

The offering of an eternal sacrifice reveals the heart of God for His creation. Offering the eternal sacrifice of His Son reveals that God, too, would do anything that was necessary in order to bring us into His eternal glory. David, a man after God’s own heart, revealed this in his offerings. Paul spoke to the rulers of the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, “Now concerning the fact that He [God] raised Him [the Son] up from the dead no more to return to decay, He said on this, ‘I will give You the sure mercies of David’” (At 13:34). The gospel was the revelation of the mercy of God that was revealed through David’s merciful behavior as the king of Israel. It was mercy that cost God the eternal sacrifice of His Son. Sufficient sacrifices for sin come with a high price.

At one time during his reign, David made a burnt offering to the Lord. What transpired during the events that led up to the offering reveals that David was truly one after God’s heart. Knowing that David wanted to make the offering, Araunah said to David, “Let my Lord the king take and offer up [free] what seems good to him” (2 Sm 24:22).   What Araunah was offering David was both the location to make his offering, as well as all free oxen that were necessary to make the sacrifice. Araunah wanted to give all the sacrifices to David for him to make his personal offering to the Lord.

David’s response to Araunah, as Abraham in the offering of Isaac, revealed that he truly understood the cost of offering an acceptable sacrifice. David responded to Araunah, “No, but I will surely buy it from you at a price. Neither will I offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God of that which did not cost me anything (2 Sm 24:24).

And so it was when Abraham, without question, sought to offer his only begotten son. And so it was also when God offered up His only begotten Son as a sacrifice for our sins. As David would not offer a free sacrifice on behalf of his own sins, God would not offer for our sins a sacrifice that cost Him nothing. God’s offering at the cross was in the same sacrificial nature as what He called on Abraham to do, and which David did. There is no acceptable offering to God that does not come without expense.


This is the heart of God that was revealed through the incarnational sacrifice of the only begotten Son of God. This message of the gospel was what cut to the heart of three thousand descendants of Abraham on the day of Pentecost.   They knew of the unconditional love of Abraham to do all that God commanded. They knew through David that sacrifice costs. And now they knew that God was willing to make an unconditional eternal sacrifice that would suffice for their sins.

Peter and the apostles revealed that God’s incarnational sacrifice for the people came with a great price, and thus, they could only respond as Abraham’s faith moved him to obey in all things. The gospel message cut straight to their hearts.   When the message of the gospel is focused on the heart of man, there is an instant response in the hearts of those who seek to walk by the faith of Abraham and David.

 The gospel penetrates to the heart, and then reaches to the head. It is then that the heart is stirred into action in order to do all that God wills in our lives.

The gospel message cut the Pentecost audience to the heart because the people realized that God was not willing to hold back from paying any price necessary in order to bring those of faith into His eternal fellowship. The old song was truly correct in expressing the heart (action) of God through the incarnational sacrifice of His only begotten Son.

Gone is all my debt of sin,

A great change is bro’t within,

And to live now I begin,

Risen from the fall;

Yet the debt I did not pay

Some one died for me one day,

Sweeping all the debt away,

Jesus paid it all.

(M. S. Shaffer)

[Next lecture in series: September 26]

Futility of Church Righteousness

The gospel cancels all self-made religions and self-imposed religiosity. Unfortunately, we all have our religious ways about us, and because we do, we try to relegate Christianity to being just a religion. When Christianity is twisted into a religion through either our legal obedience of self-justification, or experiential emotionalism, then “church righteousness” is developed whereby we all seek to establish our own common righteousness as a group that is based on the performance of our respective religious associations.

This was the contextual religious environment that Paul addressed when he wrote to the Colossians. Some in Colosse were in the process of developing a church righteousness after the meritorious systems of the idolatrous religions of the Gentiles, or the legalism of Judaism (Cl 2:20-23). They were bringing into the church a meritorious system of religiosity by which they would identify the church as a religion.

In the context of any attempts to establish a church righteousness by which we would seek to save ourselves, we must again take another look at the core nature of the gospel. The gospel destroys any attempts to substitute church righteousness for God’s righteousness. Our peace of mind in reference to our relationship with God depends on conforming to His will, not to the will of the “pastor,” or the church group to which we belong. Church righteousness gives birth to a unique religious group through conformity to the religious rites of the group, whereas gospel insures allegiance only to Jesus, regardless of where one shows up on Sunday morning.

In order to gain the peace that passes all understanding in these matters (Ph 4:7), we must construct our world view of faith around Paul’s arguments in Romans 3. Paul begins with the statement, “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested … even the righteousness of God that is by the faith of Jesus Christ to all those who believe …” (Rm 3:21). As earlier stated, it is significant to notice first in this statement that the article (“the”) is not in the Greek text. What Paul is establishing is the fact that God’s righteousness was not revealed through the Sinai law, nor any religious law of man. We must be cautious, therefore, not to establish a unique “church” that is based on adherence to the religious rites that a group of people might impose upon themselves in order to be a unique group.

Here is the principle: The gospel was not revealed because God was obligated by law to offer His Son. The gospel came to us apart from law, not because of law.   Jesus had no obligation to die on the cross in order to fulfill any law. God was not in debt to man to pay the sacrifice of His Son on the cross.   If the cross was according to law, then there was no grace. If our obedience to law obligated God to save us, then grace was given out of debt.

Now apply this principle to unique church religious rites that we might impose on ourselves who would be the church.   Since God did not reveal the gospel on the basis of law, then certainly we would not establish the church on the basis of law. The church of Christ is based on the gospel, not on the members

conformity to a certain list of laws or religious rites.   If we would base the church on conformity to law, then what is the difference between a law-based church and a church that bases itself on commonly agreed upon religious rites?   Simply because a law-based church might have a passage of scripture below each point of belief and behavior of their “church doctrine,” does not set aside the inability of each member to keep law perfectly in order to be identified as the “true church.”

Since the church is composed of members, and thus, if church exists because of perfect law-keeping, then the church would never exist in its perfect form simply because none of the members can keep law perfectly. As law did not obligate God to reveal the gospel, neither does law obligate us to set aside the gospel as the foundation upon which the church is built. The church is based on the gospel, not on law.   The church exists because of those who have conformed to the gospel of Christ. Those who obeyed the gospel on the A.D. 30 Pentecost, were added to the church of believers by God, not because they sought to conform to a system of law, but because they conformed to the gospel in obedience thereof (At 2:47).

Since all of us as members of the body of Christ have fallen short of self-justification through lawbreaking (Rm 3:23), then there was the necessity of free justification “by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rm 3:24). For this reason, God sent forth His incarnate Son on the cross as an eternal atoning sacrifice through His blood. He did this “in order to declare His righteousness,” not to make a payment for us for our good works, or as a reward for our flawless obedience to His will (Rm 3:25). At the cross, therefore, God declared “His righteousness that He might be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus” (Rm 3:25).   Our faith in our Father to take care of us as prodigal children resulted in Jesus’ sin offering for us. We are the body of Christ, therefore, because through the gospel we have been redeemed into membership through His free offering.   Nothing has changed in reference to God’s relational offering of Jesus for us as we walk in the light as members of the body of Christ (1 Jn 1:7).

Since through our obedience to the gospel of the cross we are made righteous before God, then there is no room for any church righteousness about which we would boast on our own behalf. We would not boast of our performance of law in order to be the church, neither would be boast of any self-imposed church righteousness that would identify us as the correct church. We are “church” because of the gospel, not because of what we do.   There is never an occasion in which we can boast of what we do in reference to law-keeping.

So Paul asked, “Where then is boasting?”   He frankly answered, “It is excluded” (Rm 3:27). It is excluded through the law that we are justified by faith in the work of God through the cross, and not in how much “church work” we would do in a supposed effort to make ourselves continually righteous before God on the merit of how we perform as members of the body. Neither is our boasting in how well we have performed law in order to be the “true church.” This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote, You [members] who make your boast of law, do you dishonor God through the breaking of law?” (Rm 2:23). This is a penetrating question. The fact is that we do dishonor God when we boast in our law-keeping or religious rites in reference to being the church. Paul’s quotation of the prophets in reference to the lawbreaking of Israel is appropriate for all those who would claim to be the right church on the basis of their law-keeping: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rm 2:23; see Is 52:5; Ez 16:27; 36:22). As lawbreaking caused the people of God in the Old Testament to be blasphemed by the nations, so the same is true today when we claim to be the people of God on the foundation of our lawkeeping. God’s name is blasphemed because the world sees that we do not keep the law perfectly.

Must we remind ourselves here that Jesus said His people would be identified by their love for one another, as He and the Father loved them through the incarnation offering of the cross (Jn 13:34,35)? The church that Jesus built on the foundation of His Sonship is not identified by law, but by gospel loving (See Mt 16:18,19). And love inherently refuses to boast, whereas through lawkeeping we always seek an opportunity to pride ourselves on having the right name, the right acts of worship, the right works, the right church righteousness.

On the contrary, our boasting as members of the body of Christ, as Paul wrote, is in Christ (the gospel). “He who boasts,” Paul admonished, “let him boast in the Lord (1 Co 1:31). And he said it again, “But he who boasts [as a Christian], let him boast in the Lord (2 Co 10:17). “In the Lord” means to boast in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not boasting about being “in the church,” but boasting on the foundation of the gospel. It is not boasting about being “the right church,” but boasting about the right gospel. In a different statement, Paul said it thus: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rm 1:16). Therefore, Paul boasted in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we would boast, therefore, we do as Paul who wrote, “If I have to boast, I will boast of the things that concern my weakness” (2 Co 11:30; see 2 Co 12:5). These reason for boasting in weaknesses is that in Christ we are strong. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” in Him (2 Co 12:10). And finally: “But God forbid that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gl 6:14).

In reference to trusting in the gospel through faith, Paul continued Romans with the example of Abraham. “For if Abraham was justified by works [of law], he has something about which to boast, but not before God (Rm 4:3). Before the giving of the Sinai law, even Abraham was not justified by any law before God. “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness” (Rm 4:3). Now here is the point: “Now to him who works [as a Christian], the reward is not credited according to grace, but according to debt” (Rm 4:4). If one meritoriously obeys law in order to justify himself before God, then he obligates God to keep him saved according to debt and not grace. Out of faith, Abraham worked because of his faith that God had already saved him.   He could boast before men of his works, but not before God because he continued in the favor of God through grace.   His salvation he already had because of his faith. The same is true of the “faith” member of the body of Christ.

On the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30, did the respondents feel that God owed them the cross because of their self-imposed righteous obedience to law? We would certainly concluded that three thousand people in the Jewish audience did not respond because they felt that God owed them the cross. On the contrary, they realized that their own unrighteousness was the reason why God had to save them by His free grace. It was their self-confessed unrighteousness that produced their response to what God freely offered.

If we conclude that the three thousand were indeed moved because they realized that their religious performances of Judaism was futile in reference to being justified before God, then the same should move people today when they recognize the futility of religious performances. We conclude that it would have been a mockery for the respondents on Pentecost to plead for another set of laws to obey, when their legal “doing” of the Sinai law had actually brought them to their knees before the cross. The same is true today. Church righteousness is a mockery of the grace of God if we assume that we can “do church” in order to demand the grace of God. We must not forget that gospel living is not legally doing church righteousness.

Now consider Paul’s conclusion to this matter: “But to him who does not work [to meritoriously sanctify himself], but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness (Rm 4:5). We therefore stand right before God in His righteousness, not because of our self-righteousness, but because of the righteousness of God that comes through the cross. We are justified to be righteous before God through our faith in His grace, not by any faith in our own performance of church righteousness by which we would demand salvation.

The experientialist exhausts himself emotionally every Sunday in order to justify himself before God. But such meritorious emotionalism fails to give credit to God for His righteousness that has come to the believer through faith.   The same is true of the legalist who imposes on himself and others his own performances of church law in order to be justified before God. He has forgotten that the gospel that he obeyed brought him into Christ where he is already justified through the incarnational offering of the Son of God. He does not stay in Christ because of any perfect keeping of law, or meritorious church righteousness. He walks in the light of Christ because of what the cleansing blood of Jesus continues to do every day of his life (1 Jn 1:7).

The legalist must rejoice in remembering that he is freely justified in Christ. The experientialist must also remember that meritorious emotional performances will not put God in debt to keep one saved. We are already saved through the gospel of the cross. It is for this reason that the one “who does not work” meritoriously to save himself, but has faith in God who justifies us, is given credit for the righteousness of God (Rm 4:5).

In concluding this point we would remember a beautiful statement that Paul quoted from David: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins have been covered” (Rm 4:7; see Ps 32:1,2). Happy is the person who believes that his sins have been vanquished at the cross, and thus, does not have to labor daily in fear that he has not kept law perfectly, or performed enough good works to atone for his own sins. Since we are justified freely by God’s grace, then “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ep 2:10).

Christians thus work because they are justified, not in order to be justified. For this reason every Christian works because of his salvation, not in order to earn salvation (See Ph 2:12). His “church work” is in appreciation of all that God had done for him through the gospel.

[Next lecture in series:  September 24]

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]