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The Assurance of Salvation

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

One of the unexpected side-effects of my diagnosis has been that these days, I find that I have much more in common with our oldest members.  I share with them the knowledge that our time on earth is short, which naturally draws our thoughts to our eternal destination.  I was discussing the subject with an older sister a week or two ago, and her comment about the judgment was, “I don’t know if I’m good enough.”  She was worried about how she was going to fare.

To put this statement in its context, a couple of minutes later, she told me with complete sincerity that if she could take my ALS on herself, she would.  This is a woman with such love in her heart that she is literally willing to die in the place of a brother in Christ, and she’s concerned about whether she’s a sheep or a goat!

To be frank, I regard this as an indictment of myself and my preaching brethren.  I fear that we spend so much time trying to convince backsliders of their danger that we unwittingly plant seeds of doubt in the hearts of the most faithful.  However well-intentioned, that’s not declaring the whole counsel of God!  I want to change that at least a little bit this morning by considering the Scriptural testimony concerning the assurance of our salvation.

In particular, I want to look at three bases of our confidence, the first of which is THE PROMISE OF GOD.  Let’s read about one of His greatest promises in Hebrews 8:10-12.  Before I delve into that passage, though, there’s something else we need to explore.  Every passage that I will cite this morning is about God, and there’s a reason for that.  If our salvation were about us and our actions, we would have cause for concern, but our salvation isn’t about us.  It’s about God and the power of His grace.  We are uncertain, but the salvation of God is certain, and it’s certain in part because of His promise.

This whole text is surely one of the most beautiful and uplifting passages in the Bible, but I want to focus on two promises that God makes in it.  First, He tells us that He will be our God, and we will be His people.  Without this promise, it would be the height of arrogance for any of us to claim to belong to God.  How could people as imperfect as all of us are have any part in His perfection?  Quite simply, we belong to Him because He has said so.  Despite all that we have done, He is not ashamed to be called our God.

The second promise, in v. 12, is if anything even more important.  There, God promises that He will forgive our transgressions and forget our sins.  This is a costly promise!  It cost God the most precious thing He had.  However, God was faithful to His word and made our salvation possible through the lifeblood of His Son.  The power of that sacrifice was so great that to God, it is as though our sins never happened.  Every faithful Christian is “good enough” because in the eyes of God, only the good works are left.

Second, we can be assured of our salvation because of THE POWER OF GOD.  Look at the words of the Lord in John 10:27-29.  Sad to say, I’m afraid that brotherhood preachers spend more time explaining this passage away in order to defeat Calvinism than they do explaining it in order to comfort the saints.  Today, though, let’s go through it without using the C-word.

Notice first of all that v. 27 defines the subjects of the rest of the text.  It’s not about everybody.  It’s about the sheep, those who know Jesus’ voice and follow Him.  That means that all of us can take a very simple test to find out whether the rest applies to us.  All we have to do is to ask ourselves honestly, “Do I know the voice of Jesus?  Do I follow where He leads?”  If the answer to those questions is “Yes,” we are His sheep.

If we are indeed the sheep of the Good Shepherd, that’s a consequential thing to be!  Pay attention to what Jesus reveals about His sheep.  He will grant them eternal life, they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of His hand.  There are lions and wolves out there, but none of them are stronger than Jesus, and even if they were, absolutely nobody is stronger than the Father!

This means, then, that our salvation is not about being “good enough”.  It’s not about getting all of the sin out of our lives by ourselves.  It’s about hearing and following our Shepherd.  Yes, we should hate sin and strive to avoid sinning, but we should not wring our hands and worry about losing our souls every time we have an unkind thought.  That’s why we have a Shepherd—to protect us!  I know me, and I don’t trust me at all.  However, I also know Jesus, and I do trust Him.  Because of His power, His sheep can know perfect comfort and perfect peace.

Finally, we can be confident in our salvation because of THE LOVE OF GOD.  Let’s conclude our reading this morning with Romans 8:35-39.  To be honest, brethren, I feel a little bit like I’ve assembled a dessert buffet of a sermon because these passages are so enjoyable to study.  What an amazing text this is!  It tells us that the love of God is literally the most powerful force in the universe.  There is nothing that can separate us from it.

This is true despite all the trials that Christians can face.  For Paul and the rest of our brethren in the first century, affliction, distress, persecution, and all the rest weren’t horrible hypotheticals.  Those things were real problems that they had to deal with.  In fact, v. 36, is a quotation from Psalm 44.  All through that Psalm, the Israelites complain that they’re being defeated in battle even though they are righteous.  Paul’s rejoinder is that all of those problems aren’t a defeat.  They may look like it in worldly terms, but in reality, every Christian who endures is more than a conqueror because of the love of Jesus.

Let’s make this real.  Since my diagnosis, I’ve had I don’t know how many people tell me how sorry they are that I have to face this.  You know what?  I’m not sorry.  I know I’ve got a hard, ugly few years ahead of me, but even though ALS can take away the use of my limbs, my voice, my mind, and my life, it cannot separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  I will not die a victim.  I will die a conqueror.

I don’t know what problems you have going on in your life.  I’d imagine that some of you are dealing with some pretty heavy stuff.  However, whatever it is, it can’t separate you from the love of God either.  Because of that love, we can be certain that He will be with us through every day of our lives, and through all of eternity, we will be with Him.

If the Dead Are Not Raised

Monday, August 02, 2021

Recently, I attended this year’s Truth Lectures, which had as their theme eschatology, the study of the end times.  Many of the lectures addressed preterism, the belief that the prophecies of the Bible all already have happened.  In particular, preterists claim that the prophecies about the final judgment, the resurrection of the dead, and the dissolution of the physical universe were fulfilled (in a figurative sense) during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

I believe that preterists are correct to recognize the importance of the first-century destruction of the temple and the downfall of the Jewish nation.  In many ways, the ministry of Jesus is a last-ditch effort to turn the Jews aside from their destructive course.  Their refusal to listen to Him (and the consequences of that refusal) reverberates throughout the New Testament.  When we try to make everything in the Bible about us instead of its original first-century recipients, we fall into error.

However, it is equally erroneous to assume that all the climactic events of spiritual history already have occurred.  Often, the falsity of false teaching becomes most evident not in the teaching itself, but in its ripple effects.  In the case of preterism, I believe the biggest problems it creates arise through its denial of a general, bodily resurrection of the dead. 

Among other serious difficulties, denial of the resurrection of the body casts doubt on the resurrection of Christ.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:13, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.”  Preterists argue that the general resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15 is the figurative union of Jew and Gentile Christians in 70 AD.  Before we accept this interpretation, however, we must reckon with Paul’s use of “not even”.  This indicates that the resurrection of Christ is the most prominent example of a larger class, as in, “If no gymnasts can land that jump, then not even Simone Biles can.” 

“Not even” allows for two interpretations.  Either the larger class of resurrections is literal, and the resurrection of Jesus is literal along with it, or the larger class of resurrections is figurative, and the resurrection of Jesus is figurative along with it.  It does not, however, permit a mixed figurative/literal reading. 

Let’s suppose for a moment that the first part of v. 13 is about the figurative, invisible, unprovable union of Jew and Gentile in the church in AD 70.  If it didn’t happen, how does that in any way undermine the bodily resurrection of Jesus in AD 30?  A bodily resurrection can’t be a “not even” for a figurative class.

Therefore, in arguing for a figurative general resurrection, preterists imply that the resurrection of Christ also was figurative, a fatal problem for Christianity.  As per Romans 1:4, the [bodily] resurrection of Jesus declares Him to be the Son of God with power.  By contrast, the “resurrection” of Jesus only in the visions, dreams, and fond imaginings of His followers is useless as a proof of His divinity.  If that’s all the evidence we have, none of us should be Christians.

Preterists do well when they call us to consider the New Testament in its first-century context, but they err disastrously when they undermine the central conviction of Christianity.  If the dead are not raised, not even Christ is raised, and if Christ is not raised, our faith is vain, we are still in our sins, and of all people we are most to be pitied.  Don’t take my word for it.  Take the Holy Spirit’s.

The Limits of Sincerity

Friday, July 30, 2021

We live in a society that celebrates the individual conscience as the highest guide to morality.  Everybody has the right to “speak their truth”, and anyone who presumes to comment on someone else’s righteousness gets slapped down with Matthew 7:1.  The theory goes that as long as we think we’re doing right, we really are doing right, and God is going to be pleased with us.

There is some truth to this.  As Paul observes in Romans 14:23, whatever is not from faith is sin.  If we feel like engaging in some innocent activity is wrong, for us to practice it truly is wrong (unless, of course, God has commanded us to practice it).  Keeping a clear conscience before God matters a great deal.

However, there are other things that matter more, as Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 reveals.  Here, Paul is examining whose judgment does and does not matter.  The first entry in the latter group is the judgment of other people.  Paul makes clear his disdain for the verdicts of any human court and even of the church in Corinth.  Who cares what anybody else thinks about us?  They have power neither to justify nor to condemn.

Paul goes on, though, to observe that self-judgment also is inadequate.  His conscience is clear, but a clear conscience isn’t enough to acquit him.  Paul knew better than anyone how deceptive a conscience could be.  His statement in Acts 23:1 that he had lived his life in good conscience before God encompassed not only the time he had spent as an apostle but also the time he spent as a bloody-handed persecutor of the church.  Saul of Tarsus was sure he was doing the right thing, but he was surely wrong.  Paul knew that he could be every bit as self-deceived right then, and the same holds true for all of us.

Instead, the only relevant judge is the Lord.  His judgment is perfect because of His perfect knowledge.  We may be able to hide our sins from others, but even the most secret sin is plain before Jesus.  So too, we can (and often do) conceal our motivations from ourselves, but Christ always knows the truth.  When the Lord returns, everyone will end up where they should go.  He will make no mistakes.

From this, Paul urges us to beware of judging prematurely.  This applies first of all to others, as some of the Corinthians were eager to judge Paul.  Because we lack perfect knowledge and have eyes that often are clouded by fear and desire, we always should entertain some doubt about our judgments of others, no matter how strongly we feel we are right.

Additionally, this applies to our judgment of ourselves.  If we can err in our judgments of others, how much more can we err in self-judgment!  Rather than living in the certainty that we are right, we must compare ourselves constantly to the standard of the word.  Above all, we must constantly seek forgiveness from God, not only for the sins we commit knowingly, but also for the sins we commit in ignorance.  As much as we enjoy vindicating ourselves, our true hope lies in God’s mercy, and it never can be anywhere else.

Your Body Is a Temple

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Sometimes, our biggest problems with interpreting Scripture arise when we really want the Bible to say something that we already believe.  There is something that we think surely is wrong, so we find a suitably vague passage and impose our meaning on it.  Though this might satisfy us, we’re finding something in the word that isn’t really there.

There are several passages that invite this kind of abuse, but of them all, perhaps the most egregiously misused is 1 Corinthians 6:19.  “Your body is a temple,” Paul says, and well-meaning Christians take this as an opportunity to invest physical health with spiritual significance.  Your body is a temple, so you shouldn’t smoke.  Your body is a temple, so you shouldn’t be overweight.  Your body is a temple, so you should exercise regularly.  And so on.

All of this certainly loads guilt on the heads of Christians who do smoke, are overweight, and don’t exercise, but these applications say much more about us and our values than about Paul’s original intent.  This evening, then, let’s try to figure out what that original intent is, so that we can better understand what it means that our body is a temple.

As always, the best way to understand a passage is to consider it in context, and the context here begins with a discussion of FOOD AND THE STOMACH.  Consider 1 Corinthians 6:11-12.  Here, Paul is attempting to address a distorted view of Christian liberty that some in the church in Corinth had.  Depending on translation, your Bible may have quotation marks around statements like “Everything is permissible for me,” and “Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food.”  I think that accurately captures the dialogue that is occurring in this text.

From these comments, we can infer that the Corinthians believed that because Christ had set them free, there were all kinds of earthly delights that they were free to enjoy too.  Just like the stomach was made for food, their bodies were made for pleasure, so they might as well live it up! 

Paul has several things to say in reply.  First, he notes that simply because something is lawful doesn’t mean that it is wise.  Christians frequently attempt to justify their conduct by saying, “The Bible doesn’t say it’s a sin!”  While that may be true, it’s incomplete.  Before we engage in some activity, we also should ask if it’s going to help us draw closer to the Lord and to our eternal home.

Second, Paul points out that even some innocent delights can become a problem if they start controlling us instead of us controlling them.  I don’t think there’s a thing in the world wrong with playing video games, but if we love video games so much that they start interfering with our work or our time with our families, there’s a problem!  Any number of things can take on too much significance in our lives, and we must be on guard against all of them.

Third, Paul shows that some pleasures are flatly wrong.  The stomach is for food, but the body is not for immorality!  If we justify our behavior on the basis that it feels good, we are leaving the door wide open for sin.

Next, Paul explains exactly why it is that SEXUAL IMMORALITY is wrong.  This discussion appears in 1 Corinthians 6:14-18.  He begins by pointing out the significance of our bodies.  First, it is our bodies that will be resurrected.  We’re not going to be disembodied spirits who drift off to heaven.  Instead, just like God raised Jesus from the dead, He will raise us.  Second, when we obeyed the gospel, our bodies were incorporated into the body of Christ.  Our earthly bodies have great spiritual significance!

Here, then, is the big problem with Christians who engage in fornication, adultery, and so forth.  When we do, we are taking something that is part of the body of Christ and making it one flesh with a prostitute.  Sometimes, preachers will say that every marriage involves three:  husband, wife, and God.  This passage reveals the dark side of that spiritual truth.  Our sexual sin brings Jesus into contact with corruption and defilement.

Indeed, Paul reveals that immorality’s ability to do this is unique.  Every other sin is outside the body, but sexual sin is a sin against the body.  This might seem strange to us.  Take drunkenness, for instance.  Drunkenness is definitely a sin, and it definitely affects our bodies.  Doesn’t that count?

Not the same thing, says Paul.  He doesn’t specify why, but his previous words imply it has to do with the one-flesh nature of sexual intimacy.  Drunkenness doesn’t make us intimate with anyone; in fact, the more we drink, the more isolated we become.  Sex is different.  It’s a union of body, mind, and spirit, one of God’s most beautiful gifts to the human race.  When we take this precious gift and turn it to the service of evil, the spiritual fallout soaks into our very bones.  We have turned something that was holy into a source of unholiness.

Paul concludes by pointing out the serious problems this creates for those who were BOUGHT WITH A PRICE.  Let’s conclude our reading for the evening with 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.  Here, we meet our old friend, “Your body is a temple.”  However, in context, it takes on a very different meaning.  Things that the Bible doesn’t call sins don’t defile our bodies—they’re not sins.  In fact, even most of the sins that the Bible condemns don’t defile our bodies either.  Drunkenness is as wrong as wrong can be, but it still is a sin outside the body.  It simply doesn’t involve our bodies that deeply.

Contextually, there is only one sin that defiles the temple of our bodies, that insults the Spirit who dwells within us.  It is sexual immorality.  We shouldn’t come away from this passage resolved to eat fewer Big Macs.  We should come away from it resolved to keep ourselves sexually pure because of the disastrous consequences of sexual sin.

If there is any commandment in Scripture that our society hates, it is this one.  We are, after all, only now coming out of Pride Month, and this year I saw ungodly sexuality celebrated as never before.  Sadly, the Bible leaves no doubt about what will happen to all those who practice unrighteousness.

For us, though, the analysis is different.  Our worldly neighbors exalt sexual autonomy.  Their rallying cry is, “It’s my body, so I can do what I want!”  Paul wants us to understand, though, that because we are Christians, our bodies are no longer our own.  We were bought with a price, not into the freedom to do whatever we want to, but into servitude to Jesus.  I can’t just follow physical pleasure wherever it leads because my body belongs to Him.  It’s not something I have the right to do anymore.

Instead, we are responsible for glorifying God with our bodies.  There are a couple of different ways we can do this.  Sexual union in marriage does this.  If we are not married, though, we glorify God by reserving our bodies for our possible future spouses.  In no cases can we bring the Spirit within us into contact with intimate sin.

Respect in the Body

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

We live in an extremely individualistic society.  In the modern-day United States, everyone is indeed an island.  We define ourselves as we please and seek advantage and happiness in the same way.  Our politics reflect nothing more than the self-interested scrabbling of rival tribes.

It is tempting for us to import this individualized understanding into the church, but in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Paul calls Christians in the opposite direction.  There, he compares the church (probably best understood in a local-church sense) to a human body.  This analogy is extraordinarily powerful.  In the world, people understand themselves as the self, and everyone else as the other.  By contrast, in the body of the Lord, there is no other.  We are all part of the same organism.

As Paul points out, we have no trouble understanding the implications of this by referring to our own natural bodies.  I don’t regard my hand or foot with indifference.  I don’t dismiss my innards as unimportant simply because I can’t see the work that they do.  Instead, I am deeply appreciative of every part that God placed in my body.  Every part has its purpose, and my health depends on each functioning as He intended.

Our congregation is no different.  The divine design of our bodies is evident; 1 Corinthians 12:18 informs us that God has arranged the members of the church according to His will too.  Just as every organ of the human body has a function, every Christian has a function in the Lord’s body.  Indeed, the function of every Christian is vital and important.

The world doesn’t see this.  The world assumes that I’m most important because I get up and preach sermons on Sunday, and that everybody else is the little people who make up my audience.  Nonsense, says Paul.  Preachers are important and have a role to fill, it is true.  However, the sisters who send encouraging cards to the sick are equally important.  So are the men and women who help maintain the building.  So are the elders, who do 90 percent of their work out of the public eye.  So are the Bible class teachers.  So, indeed, is everyone who contributes to the welfare and growth of the Lord’s body in any way.

I’ve never seen my spleen.  I couldn’t pick it out of a lineup.  I only know what it does because I looked up “spleen” on Wikipedia as I was writing this article (it processes out old blood cells and helps with the function of the immune system, by the way).  However, I would not suggest for a moment that my hands and feet matter more than my spleen because I see their work and can’t see its work. 

The same is true in the church.  Every one of us matters.  Every work that we do matters, and that’s true whether others see and celebrate it or not.  We are one in the Lord.  We share our victories and our sorrows, and together we strive for the hope of a greater, eternal fellowship with Him.

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