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]