Jesus accused the Pharisees of "straining gnats and swallowing camels" (Matthew 23:23-24). This was our Lord's way of graphically pointing out that the Pharisees had lost sight of what was really important. They would "strain" at very fine points of the truth and yet overlook the most important truths. For example, they would accuse Jesus of a technical violation of the law for healing a sick person on the Sabbath. The disciples of John the Baptist did the same thing. They became so focused on "their" ministry that they began to look upon Jesus as their competition, rather than as the glorious culmination of their ministry (John 3:22-36).
The disciples of our Lord did likewise. They were more interested in Jesus eating a meal than they were in the "harvest" of many souls (John 4:27-42).
Many are the times when a coach has to take his team aside and drill them on the fundamentals, because they are so easily forgotten. It is easy for us to become sidetracked, and to lose sight of what is basic and fundamental, isn't it? This series on "The Fundamentals of the Faith" is an attempt to refocus our attention on the things that are important. I would not say that this study is exhaustive, and that all of the fundamentals have been covered here. Nor would I say that every issue is equally fundamental.
There are some truths which, if denied, would make one a heretic. To deny certain fundamentals would be to deny the faith, delivered once for all to the saints. To deny "the eternal security of the saints" would not keep one from heaven, but it may make one's time on earth less fruitful.
The "Fundamentals of the Faith" are those truths which guide and govern our lives. They are the anchors of our faith. They are the standard by which we measure and weigh all other claims to truth. They are the basis for our priorities. They determine our eternal destiny as they should direct our earthly life. Let us think on these matters very carefully. May God guide us in our study of these most important matters.
This lesson will be manuscripted and added as soon as it is available.
When I told a friend of mine that I was speaking on the subject of the depravity of man, he assured me that in addressing this topic I would have little difficulty in convincing my audience, especially if I “spoke from my heart.” One illustration from my past will prove the truth of my friend’s words.
I come from a family of school teachers and in fact, I have taught school for several years myself. It was with very little effort, therefore, that as a high school student I immediately recognized Miss Bellman as a novice. Now this innocent and naive young woman had been educated, I believe, in private, all-girl schools. I don’t know how anyone from such a sheltered past could have ended up facing a class with the likes of me in it. But there she was, on her maiden voyage, launching out into the uncharted waters of Irene S. Reed High School.
Years later, I had the opportunity of teaching for a summer in the state penitentiary near my home town. It was there that I taught side by side with some of my teachers from high school. Only then did I realize how I had devastated poor Miss Bellman. Every day these teachers had sought to build up her eroded self-confidence. And every day she had come to my class, like Daniel entering the lions’ den. One day her colleagues got to the heart of her problem—she simply had to get tough. And so that day she worked up all of the courage that remained and marched into the classroom. She gave a lecture that struck fear in the heart of everyone but me. I perceived that under her paper-thin veneer of courage was a heart of fear. When she finished her speech, and while everyone else was awestruck, I blurted out, “Thank you, Miss Bellman. Now get back to your cage and I’ll rattle your bars when I want you.” Needless to say, her heroic effort was shot down in flames.
It makes me sick to recall how cruel I was to that woman. The only justice in this is that I have had to face classes with students nearly as terrible as myself. If I could locate that woman (she left after that year), I would have to tell her how sorry I am for making her first year of teaching so miserable. But if my cruelty to Miss Bellman causes your stomach to tighten up, let me hasten to say that, whether by word or deed, many Christians treat God no better than I did Miss Bellman. We want God to stay up there in His heaven and leave us alone, unless, of course, we decide that we could use His help. Then, through prayer, we rattle the bars of heaven and expect God to come to us on the run.
One reason for our defective and diminished view of God is an overestimation of ourselves. Nothing is more humbling to man than to gain a fresh grasp of how we stand before a holy and omnipotent God. To a large extent the way we view humanity shapes our view of a wide variety of other matters. Because of this we must give careful attention to the subject of the helplessness of humanity.
The early church did not find it necessary to precisely define biblical doctrines until such time as doctrinal deviations arose. Doctrinal positions were thus more carefully defined as a refutation of specific and erroneous positions.1 In general the early church held that all of humanity are sinners at birth. This state of sinfulness originated with the sin of Adam. Man, it was believed, could only be saved through Christ, assisted by the work of the Holy Spirit. Infants, too, were lost sinners who needed regeneration.2
Early in the fifth century, Pelagius, a Briton, began to depart from the view of the early church. Pelagius was neither an infidel nor an immoral man. He was, in fact, devout and troubled by the laxity of those who professed faith in Christ, but who used man’s inability as an excuse for indifference.3 The starting point for Pelagius was the assumption that man could not be held responsible for obedience unless he were capable of obedience. In his mind obligation implied ability. Thus, if God commanded men to do good or refrain from evil, man must have been given the innate ability to do so. Man therefore, has the freedom to decide for good or evil, to accomplish it or avoid it.
At best Adam’s sin in the garden had no adverse effect upon his progeny. At worst it only set a bad example for humanity. Society, evil as it is, provides an environment which is not conducive to doing righteousness; it is still possible, only more difficult. Those born into the world as the offspring of Adam enter into life in the same state of innocence which Adam did. Like Adam they are free to obey God or to disobey. Men are constituted sinners only by an intelligent, willful, act of rebellion against God. Men are saved by reforming themselves and doing what is right. Redemption, as the Bible describes it, is therefore unnecessary. With the light of the gospel, a sinless life is only made easier.4 For this Pelagius was condemned by the council at Carthage in A.D. 412, and again, in A.D. 418, this decision was confirmed. In A.D. 431 the Eastern Church joined in censuring the Pelagians in the General Synod at Ephesus.5
Augustine, who was a contemporary of Pelagius, along with others, recognized Pelagianism as heresy and as a contradiction to the teachings of the Word of God. He crystalized a doctrinal position strongly antithetical to Pelagianism, stressing the sinfulness of man, the sovereignty of God and the necessity of grace and redemption through the work of Christ. Some who rejected Pelagianism also found Augustine’s position too much to swallow. The result was a doctrinal system known as Semi-Pelagianism founded by John Cassian, whose cause was also taken up by the presbyter-monk Vincentius of Lerinum and Faustus bishop of Rhegium. They attempted to formulate a mediating position between that of Pelagius on the one hand and Augustine on the other.
Semi-Pelagians believe that Adam’s sin did have a universal effect on all men resulting in a weakened state, not one of total inability to do good. Man is, therefore, “sick” but not “dead” in his sins. He cannot heal himself, but he is able to “call the doctor,” so to speak, to obtain healing. Fallen man can either accept the doctor’s advice or reject it. Man is thus born with an inclination to sin, but not a compulsion to do so. Man cannot be saved apart from the grace of God, according to the Semi-Pelagian. God’s grace, mediated through the sacrificial death of Christ, is usually, though not necessarily always (e.g. the apostle Paul’s conversion), initiated by man first seeking God. To the Semi-Pelagian salvation is something like power steering. As we apply pressure to the steering wheel of religious effort, divine assistance is added to our efforts and the desired end is obtained, but always at our control. It is this system of thought which today seems to have swept evangelical Christianity off its feet.
One would have to say that these two systems of thought dominate theology today. Humanistic religion, which has long ago forsaken sin and the need for personal redemption, sees man as fully capable of saving himself and his society. God (if indeed there is a God) created man with an inherent ability to do good or to reject evil. Man simply needs to be educated as to what is right, and society needs to be improved to provide many with the right environment for doing it. On the other hand, there are man sincere and devout Christians who have come to faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. They recognize the sinfulness of man and his need for the redemption that only comes through the gospel. But they do not view God as fully in charge of His universe. They see Him as more remote and less intimately involved in the daily affairs of life. They see men as sinful, but not hopelessly so. Man simply needs to be convinced of his spiritual need and to call upon God for the help provided in the cross of Calvary. Man cannot be saved apart from God, but neither can God be expected to save apart from man’s initiation (most often, at least) and cooperation.
Sadly, it is a weak, almost anemic, Savior that is portrayed by such a gospel. We sing about it in songs which speak of the God of the universe standing expectantly, helplessly by with baited breath to see if anyone will accept His offer of eternal salvation. We proclaim His glorious gospel either pleadingly, pathetically, or apologetically, as though an honest presentation of man’s condition would offend the sinner and keep him from coming to the cross. “If you’ll take one step toward the Savior, my friend, you’ll find His arms open wide.” By this we inform men that it is he who takes the first step and God Who thereafter responds with great relief and joy. That portrays a Christ vastly different from the Savior of the scriptures. That gives fallen man an elevated status, which the scriptures do not know.
What, then, is man’s spiritual state? No one passage states man’s condition so precisely as Paul does in Romans chapter three. Here, he draws together a collection of Old Testament quotations which pictures man as a helpless, hopeless sinner, not sick, but dead in his sins, not in need of a doctor, but a mortician.
… as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving, The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18).
Romans is a systematic exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to both Jews and Gentiles. In the first three chapters of this epistle, Paul lays a foundation by establishing a universal need for salvation. His conclusion is found in the expression “all have sinned” (3:9, 23). The pagan is rightly under divine condemnation because God’s creation reveals His “eternal power and divine nature” (1:20), but man has willfully exchanged this truth for a lie and has chosen to worship the creature, rather than the Creator (1:23, 25). Man is further condemned because he fails to live according to the standard by which he condemns others (2:1-3).
The Jew is even more culpable, because he has received the written revelation of God contained in the Old Testament. Some not only hold God’s word to be authoritative, but are teachers of it, and yet fail to live by its commands (2:17ff.). All men, then, from the pagan who has never heard of Christ to the Jewish Rabbi who teaches from God’s word, are under divine sentence of death. And this must mean that those of us who now have the revelation of God contained in both the Old and New Testaments are even more responsible before God. Our difficulty is surely not the shortage of revelation, but our failure to live by it.
In verses 10-18 man’s desperate and damnable condition is depicted by the citation of a series of quotations from the Old Testament. Here, the extent of the depravity of man is underscored in such a way as to force us to conclude that man is not sick but dead. First, Paul proves that when viewed corporately man, without exception, is found to be unable to do that which God views as righteous. And second, we shall find that when man is viewed individually he is found to be rendered helpless by sin in every part of his nature: intellect, emotions, and will.
When it comes to the subject of sin, all of us would like to think of ourselves as the exception to the rule. If Paul had said that most men were sinners, we would likely place ourselves among the few who are not. Thus, Paul must show that all men, without exception, fall under the wrath of God and need the salvation provided only in Christ. Four times in these nine verses Paul uses the word “all” to describe man’s fallenness. To prevent any misunderstanding, twice he clarifies his point by affirming that “not even one” is righteous in God’s eyes. So far as God’s righteousness is concerned, “there is none righteous, not even one” (3:10).
Paul spoke as a historian in these verses, not limiting man’s sinfulness to one particular age or culture. Throughout the history of mankind the truth of these verses can be amply illustrated. By referring to the Psalms and Isaiah, this broad historical perspective is accented. When Paul reminds us that “destruction and misery are in their paths” (verse 16), we know that this is as true today as it was in Paul’s day or-the prophet’s. In a day when a president and a pope can be shot within weeks of one another, we need not be urged to accept the fact of the violence of man.
Having established from the scriptures that man, without exception is a sinner, Paul also proves irrefutably that every dimension of a person’s nature is tainted by sin, incapacitating every person so far as righteousness is concerned.
In verses 13-18 Paul speaks from the perspective of a physician, showing that every organ in our body becomes the instrument of sin due to our depravity. Beginning at the head, Paul deals with the organs which generate speech. The throat is a grave, corrupted and defiling, and the tongue is deceitful (verse 13). The lips of man, much like the viper, conceal deadly poison; they are instruments of destruction. The mouth is full of curses and bitter words (verse 14). The feet hasten man to deeds of evil (verse 15). The sum and substance of this anatomical analysis of man is that from head to foot man is dominated by sin. His organs are instruments of sin (cf. 6:12, 13).
Morally, every man falls short of the standard of righteousness which God has set. In the words of scripture, “there is none righteous” (verse 10), “there is none who does good” (verse 12). By this we do not mean to say that man cannot do anything that his fellow man considers good. It is obvious that some who do not profess to know Christ personally at times live by a higher standard than some who do know the Savior. Unbelievers may be kind to their wives, give to the poor, and help the helpless … all commendable deeds. But the Bible teaches that no one will ever be justified that is, be declared righteous, by his works:
Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).
The Law was not given to save men but to condemn them, to show them their sin and the need for a savior. Legal righteousness could only be earned by obedience to the whole Law, without any violation, ever:
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them” (Galatians 3:10).
For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all (James 2:10).
And so, anyone under the Law is obliged to keep it completely, lest the Law condemn him. Further, the Law, while it provides the standard of righteousness, does not give the strength to do what is righteous:
Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:5).
Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a Law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law (Galatians 3:21).
For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bandage to sin (Romans 7:14).
For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:3-4).
Righteousness, then, cannot be earned by good works or the attempt to keep the Law of God, for fallen man is incapable of overcoming sin apart from divine enablement. Beyond this, those deeds which may appear to be righteous in the eyes of man may be evil because they are accomplished out of evil motives. Good deeds, if they are done to earn God’s approval and blessing (that is, righteousness), are based upon an evil motive. God has said that we cannot please Him by our works, for they are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Most often we do good deeds in order to obtain man’s approval and acclaim, which negates any possibility of divine approval:
“When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2).
Unsaved man may perform deeds of human kindness and charity. Man may do those things which win the approval of others. But men, apart from God, cannot please God. They cannot do anything which God calls righteous or has merit in His eyes.
The unsaved man’s will is always contrary to God’s. It can thus be said that no man seeks God (Romans 3:11). Frequently man willfully turns from God for Paul reminds us, “all have turned aside” (3:12) so as to become useless. Man is born in sin (Psalm 51:5), and is thus an enemy of God by nature:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).
Intellectually, man’s ability to comprehend spiritual matters is nullified by the effect of sin. As Paul would have us understand, “there is none who understands” (Romans 3:11). Man has made great strides in the fields of science and medicine, but even the most elemental spiritual truths are beyond the grasp of the most brilliant person, who is still in his sin:
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Corinthians 2:14).
This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart (Ephesians 4:17-18).
We are therefore driven to the conclusion that all men are sinners by nature and by practice. Man is not sick in sin, but dead. He does not need a doctor, but a mortician. He does not need God’s help; he needs life. In the words of Steele and Thomas:
The natural man is enslaved to sin; he is a child of Satan, rebellious toward God, blind to truth, corrupt, and unable to save himself or to prepare himself for salvation. In short, the unregenerate man is dead in sin, and his will is enslaved to his evil nature.6
The Westminster Confession of Faith states this same truth:
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.7
A truth as crucial as that of man’s depravity has many implications for the Christian. Let me begin by suggesting what the doctrine of total depravity is not intended to mean.
(1) Total depravity does not mean that man is as bad as he could be. The adjective “total” in the term “total depravity” does not mean 100% so that every man is said to be completely corrupt, totally evil. In fact, some men are more wicked than others. It is this reality that necessitates degrees of eternal punishment (cf. Luke 12:47-48; Matthew 10:15; 11:21-24). It will not be until the time of the great tribulation that men will be given the liberty of pursuing their wicked desires without restraint (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:6-10). Total depravity refers to the condition of man whereby every aspect of his nature—intellect, emotions, and will—have been tainted by sin. Total depravity does not mean that a glass of water is 100% poison but that only one drop of poison in a glass of water contaminates every drop of that water.
(2) Total depravity is never intended to reinforce sinful psychological self-abuse. Many Christians fail to appreciate who they are in Christ. They demean themselves as unlovable and unworthy. They morbidly delight in songs which refer to themselves as “worms” (… “for such a worm as I”). We are unworthy of God’s grace—that is what makes it grace. We are worthy of condemnation. But we are also divinely created and fashioned by God in the womb (Psalm 139:13ff.). God valued man enough to send His Son to die for us, while yet sinners (Romans 5: 6-8). If we are true believers, we are in Christ, and He is in us. Every Christian has a spiritual gift, which equips that saint for a function and calling within the body of Christ, the church (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1ff.). When the Christian is self-demeaning, he or she is depreciating the work of God, a serious sin in my estimation. If you will remember, it was the steward who thought he had the least to offer his master who was inclined to be slothful with what he was given (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).
(3) The doctrine of total depravity is never an excuse for sin in the life of any Christian. Too often, I have heard Christians excuse the sin in their life with a flippant, “But I’m totally depraved; what did you expect from me?” The answer to such a statement is, “No, if you are a Christian, you are not totally depraved.” No Christian is, for the Apostle Paul did not write to the Ephesians, “You are dead in your trespasses and sins,” but “You were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul again addresses the subject of sin in the life of the Christian. The rhetorical question has been raised; “Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” (Romans 6:1) Paul emphatically answers, “God forbid!” The reason that a Christian must not continue to live in sin is because he has died to sin:
Now if we have died with Christ we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:8-11).
From Romans 6 we learn the necessity of leaving the old life of sin behind and living a new lifestyle of righteousness. In Romans 7 we find that while we may have a strong desire to shun sin and practice righteousness, we cannot do so in the power of the flesh for sin’s influence is stronger. In Romans 8 we find that no Christian must live in sin because God, through His Son, has brought forgiveness, and through His Spirit, has brought power to live according to His righteous requirements.
Total depravity means that man will always choose to do evil, because that is his disposition. Since, in Christ, “old things passed away” and “new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17), we now are able to choose righteousness and flee evil because of God’s enablement. No Christian must sin in the sense that total depravity speaks of the condition of lost men and women.
We who were dead in sin are now alive in Christ, free from sin and forgiven of its penalties (Ephesians 2:1-10). We are presently being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Our lives are being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). The Holy Spirit enables us to comprehend spiritual realities (1 Corinthians 2:6-13). The Spirit of God gives us power to live according to His demands (Romans 8:1-4).
(4) Total depravity does not mean that an unsaved person has no choice to make, but it does mean that fallen man will always choose to go his own way rather than submit to God. In the first three chapters of the book of Romans, Paul demonstrates that all men are worthy of God’s eternal wrath, not just because Adam sinned, but because all men are given some revelation about God, which they must accept or reject, and, given this choice, men always choose to reject God. The lost must be confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ, for apart from a hearing of the word, men cannot be saved:
… for “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:13-15)
All men are faced with the choice of submitting to God or rejecting Him, but man’s nature determines man’s decision. Man, in his lost state, has the same free will to become a Christian that a lion has to become a vegetarian. This is why salvation is always initiated by God and not by man:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. … For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, … (Philippians 1:6, 29).
(5) Man’s total inability in spiritual things does not mean that it is futile to proclaim the gospel to the lost. Man will never respond positively to the gospel in his own strength, but the Bible makes it clear that those who are saved have been the recipients of divine enlightenment and enablement.
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. … And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 13:48; 16:14).
Because it is God Who saves men, we may proclaim the gospel boldly knowing that those whom He has chosen will be saved. And when we pray, we need not pray that men will have the intellectual ability to believe, or that their wills may be open to divine instruction, but that God will give them life, effectually call them, and draw them to Himself. If it is ultimately God Who saves men, then we can plead with Him for the souls of men, knowing His desire to save (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4), knowing He delights to answer our prayers (1 John 5:14-15), and knowing He is able to save any whom He chooses (cf. Acts 9:1-22).
And even when men do not believe the message of the gospel, God is glorified by its proclamation:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Lest they see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed” (Isaiah 6:8-10).
In evangelism, as in every area of Christian living, we are never commanded to be successful, but only to be submissive to His will and obedient to His word.
Having discussed a number of misconceptions of the doctrine of man’s total inability (or total depravity, if you prefer), let us now press on to some of the things this doctrine does imply.
(1) Because man is totally depraved, salvation is, of necessity, a supernatural phenomenon. Those who are “dead in their trespasses and sins” do not normally or naturally become alive in Christ. Many of us are not convinced of this. We suppose, for example, that if only the gospel were explained clearly enough (as some boldly say), then anyone would turn to Christ for salvation. How then, do we explain the “failure” of our Lord to convert all but a few of his hearers? Intellectually, man is so affected by sin that a totally convincing argument will fall on deaf ears. The gospel is not logical to the lost, but foolishness:
For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18, cf. vss. 19-31).
If there are some who suppose that we can reason the lost into heaven, there are others who believe that we can nag them into eternal life by breaking down their resistance to the point of surrender. That is why we play 29 stanzas of “Just As I Am” and plead with the lost. That is why some wives persist at trying to wear down their husbands with the message of salvation, over and over, sneaking in a tract here, setting up a meeting with the preacher there, and so on. Others will try to use the emotions to scare one into a decision for Christ by threatening them with the fires of hell.
Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean to say that the gospel can be sloppily and haphazardly explained. We should make the message of salvation as clear as possible. We should address the whole person—intellect, emotions, and will. But after we have done the best possible job of proclaiming the gospel, it is only God Who can bring a dead man to life. And because salvation is a supernatural experience, we must not rely upon our own strength or our own devices. If men are to be saved, it must be because God has used us and our words. We must continually be dependent upon Him for success in evangelism.
(2) Even children are totally depraved. I know that statistics reveal that most people are converted in their youth. I do not wish to refute these figures. But I must insist that if we are born in sin and in a state of rebellion against God, children are just as dead as adults. They are no more inclined to trust in Christ than anyone else. Granted, they have not become hardened in their sins (cf. 1 Timothy 4:2), but they are nonetheless dead. All that we have said above applies to children, as well as to adults.
Children, because of their lack of subtlety and their desire to please, will often go through the motions of conversion, but that does not save them. Children, like all others, must be convinced of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). They must be born again. Unclear statements of faith, such as “having Jesus in your heart” often lead to professions without any concept of what salvation means.
I have a friend who lived for a time in California. He happened to teach a Sunday School class in which the sons of a prominent Christian leader were enrolled. One Sunday one of the two boys proudly stated that he had asked Jesus into his heart. Pleased at this testimony and hoping to draw out a clearer statement, the teacher asked, “And how did Jesus get into your heart?” The boy thought about this question for some time and then with a sudden flash of inspiration, he exclaimed, “I guess it was through the hole in my sock!” Children must be supernaturally saved, just like anyone else. While children’s wills may be weaker than adults (sometimes I question this), none is ever saved by the adult imposing his will upon the child.
(3) Because salvation is a supernatural matter, no one is ever too lost to be saved. Some people are far more aggressively opposed to the gospel than others. Because of this, we conclude that an agnostic is more likely to be saved than an atheist. This is not necessarily true. Who could have been more opposed to the gospel than Paul, who referred to himself as “chief of sinners” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15)? Salvation rests with the ability of God Whose power is infinite. No man is less dead than another. The most hardened and resistant sinner is no obstacle to the grace of God. No one is beyond God’s salvation.
(4) The bad news of total depravity is really the good news. The most difficult aspect of salvation is not getting man saved, but getting him lost. After all, who needs to be saved who is not hopelessly lost? Total depravity means that man cannot save himself and must look to another for salvation. Christ came to the world to save sinners. He did not come to heal those who are well, but those who are sick (cf. Mark 2:17). If you are lost in sin, there is hope, there is help, for Christ died to save sinners. When men come to the point of despair, realizing their own inability, it is also the point of hope, for now they must look to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation and deliverance. To under emphasize man’s total inability, then, is not to hasten the process of salvation, but to hinder it.
(5) We must be careful not to cushion the consequences of sin so as to minimize the desperate condition of the sinner. The prodigal son, you will recall, came to himself in the pig pen, far from his father in a foreign land, eating the pods which were pig food. As much as that father loved his son, he realized that he would not be reconciled to him until he saw the folly of his ways. He had to be lost before he was found; he had to be dead before he could receive life (Luke 15:32). Many of us are tempted to build a pig pen in the back yard, trying to soften the blows of sin. While we must surely grieve at the sins of those we love, sometimes we must allow hard times to come upon them before the seriousness of sin is recognized.
(6) If man is totally unable to save himself or to contribute to it in any way, then all of the praise and glory for our conversion must go to God.
But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
Perhaps it is in our prayers that we are most likely to confess the fact that our salvation is solely from God. As B. B. Warfield has put it,
He who comes to God in prayer, comes not in a spirit of self-assertion, but in a spirit of trustful dependence. No one ever addressed God in prayer thus: “O God, thou knowest that I am the architect of my own fortunes and the determiner of my own destiny. Thou mayest indeed do something to help me in the securing of my purposes after I have determined upon them. But my heart is my own, and thou canst bend it. When I wish thy aid, I will call on thee for it. Meanwhile, thou must await my pleasure.” Men may reason somewhat like this; but that is not the way they pray.8
To God be the glory, great things He has done!
1 So far as the early Church is concerned, the doctrine respecting sin was stated only in general terms. In almost all cases the explicit and discriminating doctrinal affirmations received their form as counter statements to erroneous views. So long as the truth was not denied the Church was content to hold and state it in the simple form in which it is presented in the Bible. But when positions were assumed which were inconsistent with the revealed doctrine, or when one truth was so stated as to contradict some other truth, it became necessary to be more explicit, and to frame such an expression of the doctrine as should comprehend all that God had revealed on the subject. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977, Reprint), II, p. 150.
3 “Pelagius, a monk from Britain, was a popular preacher in Rome A.D. 401-9. He sought to stir to earnest moral endeavor lax Christians who sheltered behind the frailty of the flesh and the apparent impossibility of fulfilling God’s commands, by telling them that God commanded nothing that is impossible and that everyone may live free from sin if he will.” David Broughton Knox, “Pelagianism,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), pp. 399-400.
4 “Another consequence of his principles which Pelagius unavoidably drew was that men could be saved without the gospel. As free will in the sense of plenary ability, belongs essentially to man as much as reason, men whether Heathen, Jews, or Christians, may fully obey the Law of God and attain eternal Life. The only difference is that under the Light of the Gospel, this perfect obedience is rendered more easy.” Ibid, p. 154.
This lesson will be manuscripted and added as soon as it is available.
No one really wants to talk about hell. The person who finds some kind of satisfaction in exploring its horrors must have a problem. Many do not wish to believe that some will suffer eternal torment. One survey over ten years ago indicated that 58% Methodists, 60% Episcopalians, 54% Presbyterians, 35% American Baptists, 22% American Lutherans deny it is a specific place after death.9 It is not difficult to understand why some choose to believe there is no such thing as eternal torment. After all, such a fact would have dramatic implications!
The cults have generally tended to distort biblical teachings on eternal punishment: Christian Science believes there is no final judgment. The Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that lost men will have a second chance and that those who reject this offer of salvation will be annihilated. Mormonism maintains that all non-Mormons will be sentenced to eternal torment, along with those Mormons who are thus judged worthy of it. Unity refuses to believe in the finality of death, but believes that through mind action we resurrect ourselves from the dead. Modern theology insists that a loving God could never subject anyone to such punishment.10
The doctrine of eternal punishment is one that is essential to the Christian faith. Our Lord taught that the Holy Spirit would convince men of such judgment:
“And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8).
The writer to the Hebrews stated that this doctrine was one of the foundation truths of the faith:
Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:1-2).
To a great extent, our view of eternal punishment reflects our attitude toward the wretchedness of sin. A diminished view of sin cannot fathom the severity of eternal judgment. A biblical view of sin necessitates a judgment beyond the grave. A grasp of the horrors of hell also affects our motivation in evangelism and our desire to live a pure and holy life.
Because there is so much confusion and misunderstanding of what we mean by “hell,” it is important that we study the doctrine of eternal punishment. In the Old Testament the term “hell” is used more broadly than it should be, at least in the King James Version. And in the New Testament, the term “hell” is not broad enough in the light of other biblical terms and imagery.
With these concerns, let us give our careful attention to the doctrine of eternal punishment.
Let us suppose that this week your doorbell rings and when you answer it, two very neatly dressed young men are there to share their religious views with you. If they just happen to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of the first subjects they will raise with you is the doctrine of hell. They will attempt to shake your faith in the Bible as it has been taught to you by showing you that there is no such thing as “hell” in the Bible. This statement, taken from one of their books, is reflective of their view of “hell”:
Many religious organizations teach that the wicked are tormented endlessly in a hellfire. But is this belief taught in God’s Word? You may know the meaning that your own particular church organization gives to “hell” … but have you ever investigated to see the meaning given it in the Scriptures? What is hell according to the Bible? …
Is hell a hot place? Do sheol and hades refer to some place where the wicked suffer after death? It is plain that they do not, for we have already seen that the dead are not conscious and therefore cannot suffer.11
Because there is an element of truth in the midst of their great error (of which this is only one!), and because they use the Bible to prove their point, it is important that we look carefully at the Old Testament use of the word “hell” in the King James Version.
In the Old Testament, the principle word employed for the abode of the dead is Sheol. Unfortunately, of its 65 occurrences in the Old Testament, the King James Version translates Sheol “hell” 31 times, “grave” 31 times, and “pit” 3 times. The result is that Old Testament saints, who had a sure hope of life beyond the grave (cf. Hebrews 11), seemed to fear or experience hell:
The cords of Sheol surrounded me; the snares of death confronted me (2 Samuel 22:6).
If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there (Psalm 139:8).
… and he said, “I called out of my distress to the Lord, And He answered me. I called for help from the depth of Sheol. Thou didst hear my voice” (Jonah 2:2).
On the other hand, Sheol was also the place where the wicked would go:
The wicked will return to Sheol, Even all the nations who forget God (Psalm 9:17).
Let death come deceitfully upon them; Let them go down alive to Sheol, For evil is in their dwelling, in their midst (Psalm 55:15).
The translation “hell” seems inaccurate and unfortunate in most, if not all, of the Old Testament passages where the word Sheol is encountered. Sheol seems to refer primarily to the abode of the dead, righteous or wicked, leaving the matter of their bliss or torment largely unspoken in most instances. Occasions of imminent danger are sometimes described as though death were certain, and thus they were facing Sheol (e.g. 2 Samuel 22:6).
This does not mean, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain, that the Old Testament did not speak of judgment after death. It simply was not described by the term Sheol.
Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits (Isaiah 26:19).
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).
We must conclude, then, that in the Old Testament the term “hell” was a poor choice of words with which to render the Hebrew term Sheol. Sheol spoke of the abode of the dead with only a vague reference to the pain or pleasure experienced in this existence. There was a hope of life after death, but this was greatly clarified after the coming of our Lord.
The New Testament term most often used to render the Hebrew word Sheol was the Greek word, Hades. As is seen by its usage in the New Testament, Hades has the same general reference to the abode of the dead, whether righteous or wicked.
. . . he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay (Acts 2:31).
“And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:23).
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds (Revelation 20:13).
Generally, then, Hades, like Sheol, refers to the abode of the dead, whether righteous or wicked.12
No one spoke more clearly of heaven and hell, of eternal bliss and eternal torment, than our Lord. In Luke 16:19-31, He spoke of Hades, and thus of Sheol (its Hebrew synonym):
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers— that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:19-31).
Prior to death, conditions were completely reversed from those after death. The rich man had all the pleasures his wealth could afford; Lazarus, in contrast, had a meager and miserable existence. It would appear that the rich man did little to ease the pain and misery of this beggar Lazarus.
We may be troubled by the contrast between the rich and the poor here. Why are we not told that Lazarus was a true believer in God, while the rich man was an infidel? The context of Luke 16 helps to answer our question. The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were scoffing at Jesus as He taught (16:14). In the context of this chapter, they were unbelievers. Their unbelief was demonstrated by their love of money but lack of concern for the poor (cf. Matthew 23:14, 16ff.). In telling this parable, Jesus clearly alluded to them, in contrast to those true believers in Jesus, whom the Pharisees disdained (cf. Luke 18:9).
At death, Lazarus was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham, where he was in conscious bliss (16:22, 25). The rich man, however, was in constant agony and torment (vss. 24-25). Both were in a conscious state, and not a “soul sleep” or a state of annihilation or non-existence. Each seemed to be aware of the condition of the other. The rich man sought to ease his misery by petitioning for an act of mercy from Lazarus (verse 24).
Verse 25 explains one of the reasons why there must be some form of reward and punishment after death:
“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.’”
Justice demanded that there be some form of reward and punishment after death, for the rich man had lived in ease and luxury, seemingly untouched by the misery of Lazarus. To everyone who looks about this world and is deeply distressed by the cruelty and injustice of men, the Bible teaches that surely there is a day of reckoning. There is coming a time when wrongs will be righted.
Such was the case with Lazarus and the rich man. Heaven and hell are the answer to the cries of men and women through the ages for justice.
We learn from this parable that the reward or punishment faced after death is determined by our decision before death. One’s choice cannot be reversed after death:
‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us’ (Luke 16:26).
There is no second chance given to those who have been sentenced to eternal torment. The decisions made in life find their eternal consequences fully carried out after death.
Perhaps the greatest agony experienced by one in eternal torment is the fear that those whom they love will follow them. I have heard people say, foolishly, that they will follow their loved ones to hell, if that is where they have gone. I have heard others glibly remark that they prefer hell because they will like the company better. With all the urgency I can communicate, let me warn you: no one who is in Hades wants the company of those still living, for they do not wish any to share their misery.
I try never to forget this text when I am preaching a funeral of an unbeliever. Whether the one who has died was saved or lost, I can say with complete sincerity that the message they would want me to preach is one of warning concerning the judgment which lies ahead. How it must grieve the lost who have died to know that a liberal preacher is speaking at their funeral service. Rather than urging men and women to repent and be saved, they lull them into a false security by making death appear to be less ugly and fearful than it is. Those who misuse the Bible read texts which speak of heaven as though it is the hope of all men, saved or lost. They speak of the love of God, but they avoid sin, righteousness, and judgment, the very truths which the Spirit of God uses to convince and convert the lost (John 16:8ff.).
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring thought of all is that the lost are not sentenced to eternal torment because of insufficient evidence, but due to willful unbelief.
But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’ (Luke 16:31)
It is willful unbelief, not ignorance, which condemns men for eternity.
From this parable we learn that while Sheol or Hades is the abode of the dead, it can be either a place of blessing and peace (as with Lazarus) or a place of torment (as with the rich man). That is why the Old Testament could use the term generally, both for the righteous and the wicked. But there is a vastly different fate awaiting the two.13 How we live in this life and the choices we make now have eternal consequences.
Something very significant occurred in Sheol when our Lord was raised from the dead. As I understand it, when our Lord was raised from the grave (Sheol or Hades), He took all those Old Testament saints to be with Him in heaven. This note contained in the gospel of Matthew is one evidence of this “change of address” of the Old Testament saints:
And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many (Matthew 27:51-53).
I believe that these resurrected saints were the “first fruits” of the resurrection of our Lord, proof and assurance of our Lord’s resurrection and ours. They were, I believe, going about Jerusalem for those forty days until our Lord ascended into heaven, at which time they joined Him. We know from Paul’s writings that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8, cf. also Philippians 1:23). Those righteous who are raised before the millennium in Revelation 20 are the martyrs of the Great Tribulation (cf. Revelation 20:4). Those who are later raised at the end of the millennium are the wicked, who are cast into the lake of fire (cf. 20:5, 12-15).
Drawing these facts together, we learn that Sheol or Hades no longer contains the righteous dead, but only those who are sentenced to eternal judgment. The suffering of Sheol, while severe, is only temporary, until the wicked dead are resurrected to spend eternity apart from God (cf. Revelation 20:14).
Our Lord spoke of eternal judgment in many other ways. One of the most common terms He employed to speak of hell was the Jewish figure portrayed by the term Gehenna. This term is never found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures. In fact, it is only found twelve times in the New Testament, eleven of which are found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. The only other occurrence (James 3:6) does not come from the lips of our Lord, or emphasize the eternal damnation of the lost. Gehenna refers to the “valley of Hinnom,” which was located to the south of Jerusalem, the valley of the sons of Hinnom (cf. Joshua 15:8; Jeremiah 32:35). This was the place where Ahaz offered human sacrifices to Moloch (2 Chronicles 28:3). Jeremiah prophesied that it would be the place of God’s judgment (Jeremiah 7:32; 19:6ff.). Jewish apocalyptic writers during the intertestamental period began to speak of Gehenna as the place of the final judgment of God. When our Lord spoke to Jewish audiences, they readily understood that this term referred to the torment of the wicked.
As many have observed, Gehenna is not to be thought of in terms of a raging fire so much as a garbage dump, where all the refuse of the city was taken to be burned, including the bodies of criminals and derelicts. It is a place of waste and corruption. It is a great tragedy, which the lost must endure. There, forever, the lost will contemplate their rejection of God and their eternal destiny apart from God. Gehenna draws our attention not so much to the physical pains of the flames, but to the mental anguish of the waste involved when man rejects and resists God.14
Besides employing the terms Hades and Gehenna, our Lord spoke of eternal damnation by the use of various imagery. Let me briefly mention some of these. In Matthew, those religious persons who professed faith without possessing it were cast from the presence of our Lord (7:23). Apostates, in the next chapter of Matthew (8:12), were cast into “outer darkness,” where there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. also 22:13, 25:30). In Matthew 10:28, God is said to be the One Who “is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” In chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel, another reference to eternal punishment is found:
“So it will be at the end of the age; the angels shall come forth, and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50).
In chapter 18 of Matthew, our Lord stated that the punishment of one who caused a “little one” to stumble would be worse than placing a millstone around his neck and drowning him (18:6). In Mark, “hell” is described as an “unquenchable fire “ (9:42,43).
Jesus was not the only one to speak of eternal punishment for the wicked. While they rarely employed the terms Hades or Gehenna, the writers of the New Testament spoke frequently on the subject of eternal judgment. Listed below are passages of which I am presently aware:15
Acts 2—Here, while not explicitly stated, the force of the phenomenon of Pentecost was shown by Peter to be a partial fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel in chapter 2. The “day of the Lord” was a day of judgment, but whoever called upon the name of the Lord would be saved (Joel 2:31-32). Peter’s audience understood that he was warning them of the wrath of God because they had put to death God’s Messiah. On them, God’s wrath would come. No wonder they cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37; cf. also 24:15).
Romans 2:5-10—But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Romans 6:23—For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
2 Corinthians 5:10-11—For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences.
I realize that the immediate context refers to the fact that all true believers will have to give account to God, but I also think that the “fear of the Lord” may include the realization that the unsaved must endure the wrath of God, a strong incentive to evangelism.
Galatians 6:7-8—Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life.
The principle underscored here is that judgment involves the reaping of what we have sown. Sin has consequences!
Philippians 1:28— … in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.
Philippians 3:19-21— … whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.
1 Thessalonians 5:3, 9—While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. … For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 1:6-10—For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed.
Two significant points here are that sinners must suffer the consequences for the evil they have perpetrated upon the saints (verse 6), and that “hell” is separation from God, eternally (verse 9).
Hebrews 6:1-2—We have already quoted this verse earlier, evidencing the fact that eternal judgment is one of the “fundamentals of the faith.”
Hebrews 10:27, 29, 39— … but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. … How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? … But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.
James 4:12—There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? God is both Lawgiver and Judge. He is the One Who has the power to justify or to condemn, to preserve or to destroy.
2 Peter 2:4-9, 12, 17—For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter; and if He rescued Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, … But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, … These are springs without water, and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved.
Revelation 14:9-11—And another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
Revelation 20:12-15—And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 21:8—“But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Attempting to draw all of the biblical data together, we can say that one’s eternal torment is forever sealed at the time of death. Unbelievers immediately enter into the temporary torment of Sheol or Hades, from which they will eventually be cast into the lake of fire. They are in constant and conscious agony, which endures for eternity. They will have no second chance to change their status. There will probably be physical pain, but surely there will be the mental anguish of knowing they are forever separated from the living and loving God, Whom they have rejected.
Since hell is not a popular subject, we are not surprised to find men resisting it and questioning how it could possibly be so. It is therefore necessary to consider some of the major and most frequent objections to the doctrine of eternal damnation.
(1) Hell is unduely harsh. Many are horrified when, in the Old Testament, God ordered the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites, who inhabited the land they were to possess (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:17-18). How could a good and loving God ever order such a slaughter? The same kind of reaction is experienced whenever Christians begin to speak of hell in biblical terms of eternal, irreversible torment. To use a well-known constitutional phrase, such a fate is “cruel and unusual.” But is it?
The first thing that must be pointed out is that such a reaction reflects in the critic a failure to see sin in its true light. When we say that the punishment does not fit the crime, and if we think the punishment is too harsh, we have revealed that we do not take the crime seriously enough. The Canaanites, for example, were so wicked and immoral that their sexual practices could not be described in this message without causing some to stumble (cf. Ephesians 5:12). It was therefore necessary to destroy every living creature, for even the beasts were a part of their immorality (cf. Leviticus 20, especially verses 15-16).
Stop and think about it for a moment. Suppose that the doctor found you had cancer in your foot and told you that in order to save your life, he would have to amputate. Now I know that a foot is a very wonderful thing, but do you think the doctors and the hospital are unduly harsh in insisting that it be cut off? Certainly not if it means that your life can be spared. The spiritual cancer of sin, prevalent in men, must be dealt with severely because it is deadly. We must learn to see sin as God views it, and then we will not think hell too cruel.
Secondly, we do not properly understand God if we perceive Him as George Burns, for example, in the movie, “Oh God.” God is not a “good old boy.” He is not some kind of heavenly softie, Who is so full of love that He cannot bring Himself to deal with men in judgment. He is love, but He is also a God of justice and wrath when confronted with sin.16 If your God does not hate sin and deal with it, your god is not the God of the Bible (cf. Nahum 1:2-8; Romans 1:18; 2:5; 5:9; 12:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:16; 5:9; Revelation 6:16ff.; 16:19, etc.).
I find it interesting to observe that the two major objections which men have to the existence of God answer each other. Their first objection is: How can there be a God when there is so much evil? The second is: How can there be a good God Who would condemn men and women to an eternal hell? In the very simplest of explanations, we must say that there is a good God Who has allowed evil and Who has chosen to deal with that evil by eternal damnation. How, may I ask, can God be good and not deal decisively and justly with evil?
Finally, may I remind you that the good news of the Gospel is that all of the torments of eternal suffering have been borne by the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. He bore all of the wrath of God so that we might not experience it:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. … As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:4-6, 11. Cf. also 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:22-25; Hebrews 9:27-28).
Do you really suppose that God would have poured out any greater wrath upon His Son than was absolutely necessary? Whatever men will experience in hell, Jesus Christ has already suffered on Calvary. This means that while hell is severe, it is no more severe than is required. And more than this, since Christ has already suffered eternal torment so that we need not bear the penalty of sin, hell is only required for those who refuse the salvation already achieved by Christ.
(2) Hell is unfair. Some of those who challenge the goodness of God because of a literal hell would be willing to admit that all men, to some degree, are sinners. But they would hasten to add that we are not all equally sinful. And that, I believe, is true. Hell, however, is not a state of misery in which all men suffer equally. If this were true, hell would certainly seem unfair. Should the heathen in Africa be judged with the same intensity, who have never heard the name of Christ or the message of the gospel? The Scriptures tell us this will not be:
“The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).
“And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:47-48).
Should a man like Adolph Hitler, who was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews, suffer the same torment as an unbelieving German, who sought to spare the Jews from persecution and death? The scripture tells us,
. . . who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation (Mark 12:40).
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds (Revelation 20:13; cf. also Romans 1-3; 2 Thessalonians 1:6; Revelation 16:5-6).
Hell is just condemnation because there are degrees of torment meted out in accordance with the revelation received and the actions of each individual. In one sense, we might liken hell to an amusement park. Everyone who enters must pay the price of admission. From that point on, the rides can be enjoyed to the extent that one is willing to pay for them. In hell, the “price of admission” is the rejection of Christ and remaining in our sins. The amount of torment suffered, however, is dependent upon the knowledge rejected and the sins which those individuals have committed.
Some would hasten to complain that hell isn’t fair because it cannot be avoided. If we believe that God is sovereign in the process of salvation, then God has chosen those who will be saved, and the rest, being totally depraved, will go to hell.
God is sovereign in the process of salvation. All whom He chooses will be saved, while those He rejects will be forever condemned:
The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, Even the wicked for the day of evil (Proverbs 16:4).
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. … What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory (Romans 9:18, 22-23).
We must not deny that God must first choose to save, and then by His sovereign process draw the lost to Himself. Apart from this, no one is saved. Yet we must hasten to say that this is not the entire story. Man is a sinner deserving of God’s wrath (Romans 3:10-18). Those who are condemned have received some revelation concerning God, which they have willfully rejected (cf. Romans 1-3). The Bible clearly teaches that man suffers God’s wrath because he deserves it:
And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous art Thou, who art and who wast, O Holy One, because Thou didst judge these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and Thou hast given them blood to drink. They deserve it” (Revelation 16:5-6).
Besides this, man goes to eternal torment because he has chosen to do so. Hell is not only God giving men what they deserve; He is giving them what they want:
But they are not arbitrary inflictions; they represent, rather, a conscious growing into the state in which one has chosen to be. The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so.17
When we say that hell is unfair, we mean that it is unjust. In effect, we are saying that God is not just in sending anyone to hell. But let us remember that justice is the very reason all should be condemned forever, apart from God. Whenever we make a plea based upon justice, we must be aware that it is justice which condemns us. Only grace saves men. If it is God’s justice that explains the reason for a hell, it is God’s unsearchable grace that provides a heaven for sinners such as you and I.
We must conclude that the doctrine of eternal damnation is one that is widely taught in the Bible, not so much by the term Sheol as by many other terms and images. Jesus spoke of it more than any other. The apostles, too, warned men of its certainty. Anyone who believes the Bible to be a word from God must take the doctrine of eternal punishment seriously. Let me suggest several levels of application which this doctrine necessitates.
First, if you have never come to a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the Bible urges you to do so without delay:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once, and after this comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
Eternal judgment, as we have said, is not necessary because Jesus Christ has already experienced the wrath of God on behalf of sinners. If you trust in Him as your substitute, Who bore your sins and Who offers you His righteousness, you will be saved from the wrath to come. But if you reject His work on your behalf, you will be condemned on the basis of your works (Revelation 20:13).
Christians should learn to think of hell in the broader terms of eternal judgment, especially in the light of the inaccurate use of “hell” in the Old Testament (that is, in the King James Version). Hell is not just the Sheol of the Old Testament, nor the Hades of the New, it is Gehenna, the lake of fire, and a great number of other images. Eternal torment was taught most clearly by our Lord Himself, Who endured the torment of eternal separation from God for us. Hell is described by a wide variety of highly figurative images, and while it is a very literal and painful state of existence, it should be expected to be an existence beyond our present ability to comprehend, just as heaven must be.18
For the Christian, the doctrine of eternal judgment should be an incentive for worship and praise. The greatness of our salvation is measured by the greatness of the judgment from which we have been delivered by our Lord. Whenever we contemplate that from which we were saved, it should inspire us to worship our Great Redeemer, Who bore the sorrows of hell for us that we might have life and hope in Him.
The doctrine of eternal damnation should cause those who are saved to take sin more seriously. Like unbelievers, Christians are inclined to minimize sin. Our Lord died for sin. Hell was intended for sin. Our Lord urged His disciples to take sin seriously:
“And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, (where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.) And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell, (where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.) And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-48).
Our Lord was instructing us that sin leads to judgment, and that whatever steps are necessary to avoid it should be taken, no matter how painful or sacrificial.
Sin in the believer’s life is no less offensive to God. In one sense, it is a greater offense, for the Christian has the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome it (Romans 8:1-4). If the Christian persists in sin, he reflects an attitude of flippancy toward sin, and worse than this, he lightly esteems the death of Christ for those sins. Christ’s work on the cross is not valued rightly when the Christian is not grieved by the sin in his life. While the sins of the Christian are forgiven, past, present, and future, God must still deal with His children in discipline for willful rebellion:
It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).
Future judgment is intended to be an incentive for purity in the lives of the saints:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! (2 Peter 3:10-12).
Finally, the doctrine of eternal judgment should motivate the Christian to take evangelism seriously. If men and women are going to spend eternity in torment, apart from the living God, it is imperative that we warn them of the danger they are in. As the apostle Paul put it, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, …” (2 Corinthians 5:11).19 And when we share the good news of the gospel, let us not omit the fundamental fact of eternal judgment, for it is to this that the Spirit of God will bear witness, convincing the lost of the imminent danger of unbelief:
“And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:8-11).
12 “If this interpretation of sheol is correct, its usage does not give us a picture of the state of the dead in gloom, darkness, chaos, or silence, unremembered; unable to praise God, knowing nothing. Such a view verges on unscriptural soul sleep. Rather, this view gives us a picture of a typical Palestinian tomb, dark, dusty, with mingled bones and where ‘this poor lisping stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.’ All the souls of men do not go to one place. But all people go to the grave.” R. Laird Harris, “Sheol,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), II p. 893.
“In this illustration the rich man stood for the class of religious leaders who rejected and later killed Jesus. Lazarus pictured the common people who accepted God’s Son. The Bible shows that death can be used as a symbol, representing a great change in one’s life or course of action. (Compare Romans 6:2, 11-13; 7:4-6.) A death, or change from former conditions, happened when Jesus fed the Lazarus class spiritually, and they thus came into the favor of the greater Abraham, Jehovah God. At the same time, the false religious leaders ‘died’ with respect to having God’s favor. Being cast off, they suffered torments when Christ’s followers after Pentecost forcefully exposed their evil works (Acts 7:51-57). So this illustration does not teach that some dead persons are tormented in a literal fiery hell.” The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, p. 43.
“So when Jesus said that persons would be thrown into Gehenna for their bad deeds, what did he mean? Not that they would be tormented forever. Jesus used that valley (Gehenna) of fire and brimstone as a proper symbol of everlasting destruction. That is what his first-century listeners understood it to mean. The ‘lake of fire’ mentioned in Revelation has a similar meaning, not conscious torment, but ‘second death,’ everlasting death and destruction. It is evident that this ‘lake’ is a symbol, because death and hell (hades) are thrown into it. Such things cannot literally be burned, but they can be done away with, or destroyed.--Revelation 20:14; 21:8.” Ibid., p. 44.
15 Cf. H. Buis, “Hell,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), III, p. 116, and Edward Fudge, “Putting Hell In Its Place,” Christianity Today, August 6, 1976, pp. 16-17.
18 “‘Hell’ is one New Testament picture portraying the fate of the unsaved. But, as we have seen, it is not the only one; it is not even the primary one. Nor is it the definitive one. God’s Word is rich in illustrations and terminology describing the divine punishment of the Age to Come. All serve a useful purpose. The very variety of expression adds to our limited conception. Let us be warned—and stop where God has stopped. To do otherwise, is, according to Revelation 22:18, to risk the very punishment we seek to understand.” Edward Fudge, “Putting Hell In Its Place,” p. 17.
This article by Fudge is excellent in drawing our attention to the fact that heaven and hell are a part of an age that is yet future, and as such, beyond our present ability to comprehend, except in part. I highly recommend this article to you.
Packer also comments, “We need, therefore, to remember that the key to interpreting the many biblical passages, often highly figurative, which picture the divine King and Judge as active against men in wrath and vengeance, is to realize that what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He ‘visits’ have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow. This appears in the story of God’s first act of wrath towards man, in Genesis 3, where we learn that Adam had already chosen to hide from God, and keep clear of His presence, before ever God drove him from the garden; and the same principle applies throughout the Bible.” Packer, Knowing God, p. 139.
19 I realize that Paul may be talking about the fear which he has of standing before God at the Bema seat of Christ, giving account of his stewardship, but I think the element of eternal torment for the lost may also be involved.
Some time ago I heard Pat Boone share his early childhood definition of heaven. It suddenly occurred to him while he was sitting (or was it squirming?) in church, agonizing through one of the pastor’s typically long and boring sermons. Heaven, Pat reasoned, was going to be just like church—one thousand years—ten thousand years—forever. It was almost too much to handle. To Pat, such a state of affairs seemed more like purgatory than perfection.
Most Christians are assured that this childhood conception of eternity with God falls considerably short of the biblical description of heaven. In the words of the contemporary song, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace. …” If it is such a wonderful place, I wonder why we do not spend more time talking about it. Dr. Wilber Smith, in his excellent article on “Heaven” in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, marvels at the fact that Christian scholars have given much more attention to hell than to heaven.20 I think I can understand why. Besides. the fact that Jesus talked more of hell than heaven, hell and divine judgment are easier to identify with. All about us we see the ugly consequences of sin. We see suffering and anguish because of the evil in the hearts of men. There is enough “hell” on earth at present, so that we need only think of eternal torment in terms of greater degrees.
Heaven, on the other hand, seems almost inconceivable. As a young child I can remember attempting to comprehend time without end … infinity. Now I realize that heaven is even beyond that which I failed to fathom as a child, for heaven is the end of time; in heaven there is no time at all. The human authors of the Bible who have attempted to describe the beauties of heaven give evidence of their frustration at striving to depict an existence in a dimension beyond the grasp of mere mortals:
… but just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, And which have not entered the heart of man, All that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).
As one has said, giving a description of heaven in human words is more difficult than an eskimo going to Hawaii, and then on his return trying to describe a pineapple to his people.
For a number of years the discussion of what happens after death has been restricted to a rather small group. Now things are changing. There is an increasing interest in reincarnation, especially among those who consider themselves intellectual. In recent years there has been much discussion of life-after-life phenomenon as described by those who have died and been resuscitated. Hell, of course, is still a forbidden subject.
Heaven is an important subject for Christians, not only because it is a pleasant topic to investigate, but because it is so vital to our faith. The fear of hell and eternal torment may be a strong incentive for salvation (cf. John 16:8, 11), but it is not the basis for our hope and faith. In the Bible heaven is the ground of our faith and hope.
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
The concept of some kind of eternal bliss is universal, but the biblical heaven is vastly different from merely human hopes, which range from a kind of intellectual world of mere thoughts to grossly pagan expectations of unrestricted sensual pleasures.
The word “heaven” is probably not the best term to use for the eternal bliss that will be experienced by the true believer in Jesus Christ. The Hebrew word for heaven, shamayim, and its Greek counterpart, ouranos, are both used in three different ways. The first “heaven” is the air, or atmosphere, immediately above the earth. It is the heaven, for example, in which the birds fly (cf. Genesis 1:20). The second “heaven” is the celestial realm in which the sun, moon, and stars are found (cf. Genesis 1:14). The third use of “heaven” applies to the abode of God (cf. Isaiah 63:15), far above the atmosphere or celestial heavens.
Technically, none of these three meanings of heaven refer precisely to the “heaven” of which Christians speak and sing. When you and I speak of “heaven,” we mean the eternal bliss which all true Christians will enjoy. I do not include in this use of the word heaven the rapture of the church, the tribulation, nor the Millennium, all of which precede it. By the term heaven, I am referring to that state of everlasting blessing which is described in the last two chapters of the book of Revelation. While many evangelical Christians differ over the details of some of the preliminary events, none of which I am aware deny that, in the end, we will live forever in the blessed presence of our Lord, in the company of the elect angels and the saints.21 Heaven, in this limited sense, will be defined by describing several of its many features.
(1) We do not go to heaven so much as it comes to us.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2).
Unless I force myself to stop and think about it, I most often think of heaven only as the place somewhere very far away, beyond the most distant galaxy, to which we go when we die. Now the heaven in which God dwells is, I believe, far away, beyond the stars, but the heaven where we shall live with God for eternity does not seem to be far away at all. Instead, it is the renewed heavens and earth of which the scriptures often speak:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:10-13, cf. Revelation 21:1).
In John 14:1-3, our Lord spoke of returning to His Father, where He would “prepare a place” for us (cf. also 16:5-7). We naturally tend to think that “going to heaven” (as we often express it) means our going far away to that place which our Lord is preparing; but it is more accurate to think of heaven as coming to us, for the New Jerusalem will come to the (new) earth, according to the scriptures. In this sense, heaven is more earthly than we sometimes think.22
(2) Heaven should be thought of more in terms of a person than a place.
Our first inclination is to think of heaven primarily as a place, and, of course, this is true. Nevertheless, I believe that there is more to it than this. Heaven, most of all, is being in the presence of God.
… we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake (Philippians 1:23-24).
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, … (Revelation 21:3).
Let me illustrate. Suppose that you were the wife of a prisoner of war, held captive for many years. You knew your husband was alive and hoped to see him soon. Finally, after many false hopes and setbacks, an agreement was negotiated with the enemy and the release of your husband was at hand. The United States government had made arrangements for you to meet your beloved in Hawaii, where you would be with him for two weeks before returning to this country. Now Hawaii is a very beautiful place, I am told, and I am sure that most of us would love to go there. But, for you, the place is very secondary to the person. If you were to meet your husband in the Sahara desert it would be no disappointment. While the place of heaven is beautiful, the Person should be our greatest joy.
In the light of this fact, heaven is probably not the place that an unbeliever would enjoy very much. How would you like to spend an eternity with a Person that you have despised and rejected, and now He is supreme? How would you like to be forever worshipping Him and spending time with those who adore Him? Hell is where the unbeliever wants to be, apart from God, and so it will be (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:9).
(3) Heaven is a God-like place.
I have been impressed with the number of descriptions of heaven which are also descriptions of God. This reinforces the previous stress laid upon heaven as a person, rather than as a place. Let me briefly survey some of these descriptions.
And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3, cf. also John 17:24).
And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb (Revelation 21:23, cf. also Romans 8:18; Colossians 3:4; 1 Peter 1:7).
For thus says the high and exalted one Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, (Isaiah 57:15, cf. 6:3 above).
… and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27).
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth (Psalm 50:2; cf. 8:1).
Your eyes will see the King in His beauty. They will behold a far-distant land (Isaiah 33:17).
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper (Revelation 21:10-11).
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen (1 Timothy 1:17, cf. Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2; John 8:58).
For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, "Death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).
… there shall no longer be any death … (Revelation 21:4).
Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, Nor for brightness will the moon give you light; But you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, And your God for your glory (Isaiah 60:1,19).
Again therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).
And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb (Revelation 21:23).
As for God, His way is blameless, The word of the Lord is tried; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him (Psalm 18:30, cf. Deuteronomy 32:4; 2 Samuel 22:31).
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away, … For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12).
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is (1 John 3:2).
The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4:8).
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. … But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13).
“The Lord your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zephaniah 3:17, cf. Isaiah 62:4-5; 65:17-19).
And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude and as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:6-7).
(4) Heaven is a unique combination of some things very old and others entirely new.
I am reminded of the wedding tradition of having “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.” Heaven is unique in that some things are new, while others are old. This newness is suggested by the many things which will not be in heaven. There will be no time, no sin (Revelation 21:27), suffering or sorrow (21:4), no curse (22:2), no sun, moon, or sea (21:1, 23). The old heaven and earth will have passed away, and Satan, his angels, and those who chose to follow him will have been cast from God’s presence (20:11-15). In heaven there will be a new creation, with the saints who will have new bodies and who have been fully perfected. There will be the singing of new songs (Revelation 5:9; 14:3).
Not everything, however, will be unfamiliar to us. Certainly we will recognize friends and loved ones, as well as the saints of old, of whom we have read and heard for years—men like Abraham, Moses and David. Then, too, there will be a return to that earthly paradise of Genesis 2 from which Adam and Eve were expelled, due to sin.
And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).
Those things which foreshadowed eternal blessings will be finally fulfilled in heaven. No temple, for example, will be needed, because God alone will be the object of our worship. Since we shall “see Him as He is” we will need no aid from buildings or symbols:
And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple (Revelation 21:22).
(5) Heaven will be the place where we will be reunited with loved ones in the Lord, from whom we were separated by death.
Those who have died in Christ are merely asleep, and they will not be victims of the “second death” (cf. Revelation 20:6).
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).23
(6) While heaven is a place of rest, it is not an existence characterized by inactivity.
I think most of us tend to compare heaven to retirement. Heaven is not a hammock, strung up between two clouds. Part of the blessedness of the garden into which Adam and Eve were placed was that they had a work to occupy them (cf. Genesis 1:26, 28; 2:5). In heaven we will be profitably occupied as well:
And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; (Revelation 22:3).
While the Bible does not, to my knowledge, say this explicitly, I believe that one occupation in heaven will be that of learning. In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul said that while we now know only in part, then (in heaven) we shall know fully. I must certainly agree with Paul, but we are not necessarily told that we will know fully, quickly.24 Part of the joy of heaven for me will be sitting at the feet of our Lord, learning the correct interpretation of many passages which I do not understand, as well as the meaning of some passages I thought I did understand. Our Lord once said,
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).
I can see why this would be so if His word provides the curriculum for our heavenly instruction.
With much more certainty I can say that one occupation we shall have in heaven is the worship and praise of our God. Jesus told the woman at the well,
“But an hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23).
In heaven, the one activity most frequently depicted is that of worship:
And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (Revelation 4:9-11, cf. also 5:8, 9, 11-14; 7:9-12; 11:16-18; 14:2,3; 15:2-3).
In addition to worshipping God in heaven, we will also reign with Him.
If we endure, we shall also reign with Him (2 Timothy 2:12).
“Then the sovereignty, the dominion, and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him” (Daniel 7:27).
“And the first appeared, saying, ‘Master, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good slave, because you have been faithful in a very little thing, be in authority over ten cities”’ (Luke 19:16-17).
This “reigning” entails ruling over the nations:
“And he who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, To him I will give authority over the nations;”(Revelation 2:26; cf. 5:10; 20:6; 22:5).
Also involved will be the judging of angels:
Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you know that we shall judge angels? How much more, matters of this life? (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).
In a word, Pat Boone’s childhood conception of heaven was not as distorted as he might have thought. In large measure, heaven is the continuation of those things which Christians should be actively engaged in now: learning, worship and service.
One of the most common misconceptions about heaven in the Christian community is that heaven can be our present experience. Some genuine believers are convinced that, given enough faith, the Christian need not experience sickness or suffering. The Christian life, they say, can ideally be lived free from sin and from its adverse effects. While this thought has a great deal of appeal, it has no biblical basis. Suffering is an inseparable part of life. In fact, suffering not only precedes glory, it prepares us for it.
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake … (Philippians 1:29).
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14; cf. Romans 5:1-5; 8:18-39; 2 Corinthians 6:4-10; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 3:12).
The servant is not greater than his master, as our Lord has said. If it was necessary for Him to suffer before He reigns, so should we expect it to be for us.
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, (1 Peter 2:21).
There is a particular error of which those of us who are pre-millennialists and pre-tribulationalists have been accused, with some justification.25 Some of us are so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good. We know that this world system cannot be reformed and that righteousness cannot reign among men whose hearts are wicked. But when we see the effects of sin about us and the world in turmoil and tragedy, there is the temptation to respond with glee rather than grief. We see such wickedness only as a sign of the nearness of the Lord’s imminent return. If we could, I suspect some of us would throw fuel on the fire to hasten the coming of our Lord.
Our Lord taught that we are to be salt and light in this world (Matthew 5:10-16). I do not believe that it is God’s will for the saints to be passive in the face of wickedness, injustice and human need. While it may indicate the nearness of our Lord’s return, it should also evoke from us the same sympathy and action which we can see in the life of our Lord. In days of darkness, we are to be children of light (Ephesians 5:7-14). This means that we must never be aloof to the world about us, even as the last days come upon us.
Just the reverse can be true of the Christian, and equally evil. In the previous instance, Christians were inactive in the present because of a preoccupation with the future. In the circumstance I now have in mind, Christians may have little or no desire for God’s heaven because they are too attached to the present world.
“And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, and the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19).
When I was growing up my greatest desire was to be old enough to have my driver’s license and to drive legally. (I had driven on my parent’s property for several years, but I could not drive on the highway.) Whenever I heard someone preach about the return of our Lord I was uneasy, because I feared that He would come before I was able to drive. The humor in all this is that just this past week my family and I arrived back in Dallas after driving nearly 6,000 miles, and that drive was not heaven. Nothing on this earth is worth heaven’s wait.
A final abuse of the doctrine of heaven might seem shocking to you, but I am compelled to mention it. Believe it or not, a number of Christians are tempted by the thought of suicide in times of severe trial. And when you stop to think of it, it makes sense, in a twisted sort of way. If heaven is really all that great and there is no suffering or sin or sorrow, why not hasten things up? Why not bypass all of life’s trials and woes?
I have participated in only one funeral of a Christian who committed suicide. This young man had his Bible opened to Revelation 21 which, after he read its wonderful words, he pulled the trigger of a revolver and ended his earthly life. While I did not give the funeral message for that fellow, I can tell you what I would have said. First, suicide is clearly sin. Secondly, while suicide is sin it is not an unpardonable sin, as some say. In other words, those Christians who take their lives will go to heaven. And finally, suicide is a greater temptation for the Christian than anyone else. While the unbeliever knows his life is miserable, he has no confidence as to what lies beyond the grave. The Christian, on the other hand, is assured of the bliss of eternity with the Lord. Then why not, he reasons at a moment of despair, go right now?
The reason is simple. It is the Lord Who alone has the right to give life and to take it. It is the Lord Who has ordained suffering as a part of life. And it is the Lord Who has ordered our life and numbered our days. To take our own life is to deny the goodness and sovereignty of God. It is placing our will above His. Suicide is sin, my Christian friend, and while God will forgive you for it, you have denied that God has provided you with a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13), and you have denied yourself the blessing of experiencing the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11).
Future events are always foretold in order to bring about changes in our present actions. Because of this we must conclude by considering what changes the doctrine of heaven was intended to bring about, by the grace of God, and the enablement of the Holy Spirit.
First and foremost, heaven constitutes an offer which all men are urged to accept:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify these things for the churches, I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star.” And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost (Revelation 22:14-17).
The greatest disservice which anyone can do to another is to leave the impression that the joys of heaven are assured for all men. In each of the last three chapters of Revelation, the fate of the true believer and the unbeliever is contrasted. Those who have chosen to reject Jesus Christ as God’s only provision of righteousness, of forgiveness for sins, and of entrance into heaven, will not spend eternity with God. I urge you, dear reader, do not put this message down without searching your own heart. Have you come to see yourself as a sinner, deserving of God’s wrath (cf. Romans 3:10-18)? Have you acknowledged Jesus Christ to be the sinless Son of God, Who died in your place, bore your sins, and offers you His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)? You may have the assurance of spending eternity with God if you but receive, by faith, the gift of salvation through His Son.
Assuming that you have trusted in the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that your entrance to God’s heaven has been thereby obtained, there are a number of implications and obligations that you have to enhance your eternal blessings:
Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you (2 Peter 1:10-11).
To begin with, we must become fully convinced of the fact that heaven is no incidental element of Bible teaching. It is the basis of our faith and the ground of our hope:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. … All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth (Hebrews 11:1,13).
This being the case, we would do well to fix our hope upon the heavenly city which is being prepared for us. We ought to continually meditate upon our future hope and, as our Lord taught us, pray for its arrival:
“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. …’” (Matthew 6:9-10a).
In addition to this, we should prepare for heaven. Let me suggest several ways that preparation may be made for heaven. First, we may make investments on earth which will wait for us in heaven:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).
Money, the Bible teaches us, is a stewardship. We may, of course, squander it upon ourselves, or we may invest it for the kingdom of God. We may invest, for example, in evangelism and missions, and we will discover those in heaven who have been won by means of our giving:
“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
Giving of our money does not exempt us from the investment of our time and God-given abilities to win our neighbor to Christ. One of the joys of heaven will be reaping the reward of seeing those in whom we have an investment of time and tears, knowing that they thank God for our labor of love:
For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
And what better way to prepare for heaven than to occupy ourselves, even now, with those activities which we will do for all eternity, learning God’s Word and coming to know Him, worshipping Him and giving Him the praise He deserves and serving Him as we serve others:
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:34-40).26
A rather startling thought occurred to me while I was contemplating the service which will occupy us in heaven. I believe that one of my spiritual gifts is teaching. Little wonder, then, that I believe preaching to be an important part of my ministry on earth. But can you imagine any gift more useless than that of teaching in heaven? Who will need me? My job will be obsolete, for then we will know fully, the Bible tells us. That informs me that while teaching is important for the present, it will not be needed in heaven. The same could be said, I think, for any other gift. Certainly we can agree that evangelists will be unnecessary in heaven. While our specific gifts and functions in the body of Christ are vitally important now, worship is something that will never become obsolete or unnecessary. All of this compels me to give more emphasis to those things which will never pass away—God and the worship of Him, God’s people, and God’s Word.
One of the things the doctrine of heaven should cause us to do is to re-evaluate our priorities. In Hebrews 11:13 we read that those who looked for a better country viewed themselves as “strangers and exiles” in this present life. Over and over in the New Testament we are called “strangers and exiles” (cf. 1 Peter 2:11). Our citizenship, Paul said, is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We must, therefore, set our minds “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).
Finally, the doctrine of heaven should give us a whole new outlook on our present sufferings and afflictions. We must come to see that these afflictions are God’s way of preparing us for the glory that lies before us:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; (1 Peter 1:3-7).
In the light of eternal blessings, our present afflictions can be seen as minute and momentary:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Heaven would not be nearly so dear if our present life were one of complacent comfort. It is those who are afflicted who desire to find the rest which heaven offers:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:3-12).
When we go on vacation each summer, we can hardly wait to leave the heat of Dallas and go to the Pacific Northwest, where we have many friends and relatives. But after a couple of weeks of being cramped together without air conditioning and living out of a suitcase, there is a unanimous desire to “go home.” I hope that you are not so comfortable in this life that it seems like “home” to you. Those who suffer in this life are eager to find a better land, and have to give up little to obtain it. Those who are rich and comfortable prefer not to give up what they have. In this sense the poor are truly blessed, for they are those who desire the heaven which God offers (cf. Luke 6:20). This is no mere matter of riches and poverty, however, for it is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and who suffer for it, who will see God’s kingdom (Matthew 5:3ff.).
Let us seek to be heavenly minded, to pursue the kingdom of God and to pray for its coming. Let us also seek to be faithful in the present, serving in society as salt and light, and striving to lead others to Him Who is Life and Peace and Blessing. And let us persevere in our trials, knowing that our faithfulness will be rewarded.
20 “The Biblical doctrine of heaven has never received, from a theological standpoint, the consideration that theologians have given to the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment. Shedd, for example, assigned two pages in his Dogmatic Theology to heaven, and eighty-seven pages to eternal punishment. Dr. Niebuhr in his quite exhaustive work, The Nature and Destiny of God, gives no consideration to the matter of heaven except for a regrettable statement, ‘It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of the furniture of heaven.”’ W. M. Smith, “Heaven,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 111, p. 60.
21 I have chosen not to deal with matters such as the rapture because I feel that it is not a fundamental of the faith in the strictest sense of the word. Some Christians differ over its timing, while others question its existence. Personally I believe the rapture will precede the tribulation, but this is not crucial to the immediate task of considering the eternal state of the saints.
22 Just as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have tried to capitalize on the mistranslation of the word Sheol in order to undermine the doctrine of hell, so others have made much of the earthly side of heaven. Heaven, at least the New Jerusalem, does come to the earth, but it would be wrong to make too much of this one fact. I make mention of it so that our thinking will be biblical and so that we may not be caught off guard by the cultist.
23 I realize that this passage refers to the rapture of the saints and not the “eternal state” of heaven. Nevertheless, we know that those who are raptured will participate both in the Millennial Kingdom as well as the eternal state.
24 I admit it, I am on precarious ground in suggesting that our full knowledge will come about gradually. Let me say, however, that full knowledge and learning over a period of time are not necessarily inconsistent: “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). In His deity, Jesus knew all things, while in His humanity, He learned over a period of time.
25 Remember that I have frequently said that the misapplication of a given doctrine is no proof that such a doctrine should itself be rejected. Any truth can be unbiblically applied. We may as easily do the wrong thing for the right reasons as we do the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Years ago, I had an opportunity to visit in the home of a family who had been attending the church where I served. The man had attended faithfully and listened attentively to my sermons for some time, and so I was shocked when he unhesitatingly said to me, “Bob, I think that I am about 80% saved.” Now I must admit that I had never before known of anyone who was 80% saved, and certainly no one had ever told me before that they thought of themselves in that way.
The more I have thought about it, the more convinced I have become that this “80% Christian” is the rule rather than the exception. I now see twentieth-century “Christianity” in a new light. Now that I stop to ponder it, I have met many more people like my friend—people who are almost saved. For example, I once visited with an elderly couple who had expressed their desire to be baptized. I called upon them in their home and the inevitable question had to be asked, “Why do you want to be baptized?” It was very simple, the man said; he and his wife were getting along in years. They had joined a church, given money (as I recall), done virtually everything he thought Christians were to do, except be baptized. This was the only stone which they felt they had left unturned, and they were not about to take any chances. They wanted to be sure about eternity—after all, there wasn’t much time left.
Many other “Christians” seem to agree. A Gallup poll indicated that 34% of all Americans 18 or older believed that they were “born again.”27 Few of us would dare to believe such a statistic could be true, especially in the light of other findings by a later Gallup poll.28 Yet now, because of the words of the friend I visited, I can understand why so many people think of themselves as “born again” Christians. They believe so because they see themselves as 80% saved, and in their mind, that ought to be close enough. When Paul stood before Agrippa, this king told the apostle, tongue in cheek, that he was almost persuaded to become a Christian (cf. Acts 26, especially verse 28). While Agrippa was “almost persuaded,” he knew that he was far from almost saved. Agrippa knew he was, by Paul’s gospel, a lost man. But those who are 80% saved conclude that anything over 50% must be sufficient. They are lost and don’t even know it. As a result, the greatest need for many “Christians” today is to be born again, genuinely and thoroughly saved.
No doctrine of the faith is more fundamental than that of salvation (theologians call it soteriology). Misconceptions here result in eternal destruction, because faith that is placed in the wrong object cannot save. Let me ask you the question I often ask those who come to my office: If you were to die today and stand before God, what reason would you give Him for admitting you into His heaven? Are you relying on your efforts to live a good life, keep Ten Commandments, do good, help others, go to church (even putting something in the plate!)? Are you trusting in the fact that in the past you raised your hand, walked an aisle, or signed a card? Do you believe that joining a church, being confirmed, or being baptized will save you? None of these reasons are acceptable to God. None of these things will save anyone.
In spiritual matters, man’s ways are not God’s ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). Unsaved men view the essence of Christianity as very broad, and its expression amazingly narrow. In other words, some believe a man can get to heaven pretty much as he chooses, and his “faith” makes few demands of him. Thus a man can get “saved” any way he wants and live with no sense of obligation toward God. I am going to insist that it is just the opposite. The Bible teaches that there is only one way to be saved and that the Christian life affects every facet of a man’s life, radically changing his thinking, his attitudes, his values, his priorities, his desires and his conduct. In the Bible the essence of Christianity is very narrow, and the expression of it very broad.
Our Lord had some very shocking words about those who would spend eternity in hell. He said that hell would be inhabited by some very religious people, who were convinced that heaven would be their eternal home:
“Not every one who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
If people are going to hell, who both profess to know God and serve Him, surely we need to look carefully at what it is that actually saves a person.
Two of our previous lessons on the fundamentals of the faith have been devoted to the subjects of man’s total inability to merit God’s approval or eternal life and the destiny of eternal damnation of those who are not true believers. Because of this we shall not repeat what has already been said, other than to quickly review by saying that man is helpless and hopeless if left to himself in the matter of salvation. If man is to be saved, it will not be by his own efforts. Only God can save men. We shall now direct our attention to how God has chosen to do so.
The essence of the gospel message is that God has achieved eternal salvation for all who will believe, through the work of the sinless Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, Who died on the cross of Calvary as the sinbearer of the world. In a word, salvation was accomplished for men by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. We shall attempt to briefly point out the most important features of the death of Christ as indicated in various biblical passages.
(1) While the life and teachings of our Lord Jesus are of great value and import to the Christian, it is His death on the cross which saves us. Much can be said of the worth of our Lord Himself. He was fully God and fully man (John 1:1-5; 1 Timothy 2:5, etc.). Our Lord was God’s final and authoritative Word and the full revelation of the Father, so that those who have seen Him have seen the Father’s express image (Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:18). Jesus taught absolute truth with great authority (Matthew 7:28-29; John 14:6). He was both an evidence and an example of divine love (John 3:16; John 15:12-13). Our Lord’s death gives us an example of righteous suffering (1 Peter 2:21-25).
While it is essential to understand that the life and teachings of our Lord proved Him to be qualified for the work of the cross (e.g., the temptation of Jesus, Matthew 4:1-11), it was His death on the cross that brought salvation to men. His teachings instructed men and prepared them for his death, but His death actually saved them. His miracles authenticated His teaching and helped to establish His deity, but His death is what accomplished our redemption. The “new covenant” in Jesus’ blood (Luke 22:20) was accomplished only by His death. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way:
For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives (Hebrews 9:16-17).
Thus we must see the cross of Calvary not just as a part of the gospel; it is the heart of it.
(2) The death of Christ was not an accident or an after-thought, but a part of the plan of God from eternity past. Some have attempted to teach that Jesus died a tragic martyr, misunderstood and killed by an unfortunate turn of events. The Bible tells us that our Lord’s death was a part of God’s eternal decree, determined before creation:
… knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a Lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you … (1 Peter 1:18-20).
And all who dwell on the earth will worship him, every one whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain (Revelation 13:8; cf. Matthew 25:34).
Our Lord Jesus wanted it to be very clear that His death would not be accidental, but an act of obedience to His Father’s will:
“For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:17-18).
(3) The death of Christ was substitutionary. Jesus did not die for His own sins, because He was guiltless:
… knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19).
… who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed (1 Peter 2:22-24).
When John the Baptist introduced our Lord, he exclaimed,
”Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Jesus said of His purpose in life and death,
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
(4) In His death our Lord died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sins. The prophet of old announced that the coming Messiah would be a sinbearer:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).
Centuries later, looking back on the cross of Christ, the apostle Paul wrote,
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The writer to the Hebrews spoke of the work of Christ as the purification of sins (Hebrews 1:3), while Peter says He bore our sins (1 Peter 2:24). John, in his epistle, says that the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
(5) The death of Christ was a final, once-for-all, payment for sins. In the Old Testament God merely passed over the sins of the nation (cf. Romans 3:25-26). The blood of the sacrificial animals did not forgive sins. These bloody sacrifices did not bring pardon, but merely a reprieve. By offering the sacrifice, the Old Testament saint expressed the faith of one who looked forward to the coming of the “Lamb of God.”
… and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12).
It is because of this that our Lord could confidently say from the cross, “it is finished!” (John 19:30).
The work of the cross was complete, final. Sins were paid for in full. No more payment was needed.
(6) In large measure, the work of the cross can be summarized in four words: redemption, propitiation, justification, and reconciliation.29 Redemption refers to God’s purchase of a people for Himself. The price paid is the blood of Christ. At times the emphasis is on the idea of buying back, with the imagery being that of the slave market. We have been purchased out of bondage to sin by the work of Christ on the cross (cf. Exodus 6:6; 15:13; Leviticus 25:25-27; Ruth 4:1-12; Romans 3:24; Colossians 1:14; 1 Peter 1:18-19).
Propitiation describes the appeasement of the righteous indignation of God, which is aroused by our sin. God’s standards have been violated, His word ignored or rejected. The wrath of God is thereby incurred by fallen man. The death of Christ satisfies the demands of justice, and God is now able to deal with us in mercy and grace (cf. Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:1; 4:8-10).30
Justification has a two-fold reference. In the first place, justification refers to our innocence under the Law and our resulting immunity from condemnation under the Law’s requirements. Our sins have been borne by Christ on the cross. Our penalty has been paid, and so the Law has no claim on us. God therefore declares us innocent, justified. Beyond this, justification declares us to be positively righteous in God’s sight. While our sins were imputed to Christ, His righteousness was imputed to us and so God, as judge of the earth, declares us to be both free from guilt and deserving of the rights and privileges of righteousness (cf. Acts 13:39; Romans 4:6ff.; 8:14ff.; Galatians 4:4-7).
The result of all these is reconciliation. We who were once alienated from God by our sin (Ephesians 2:11ff.), are now brought near through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:16ff).
The work of Christ on the cross is the objective basis for a person’s salvation (His shed blood—and that alone is what saves us). “What can wash away my sin?” the song asks, “nothing but the blood of Jesus.” But there is also a subjective side to salvation which we must understand. We must now move on from the object of our faith to the obtaining of salvation through faith.
There are two major terms which encompass the entrance of a person into the wonders of eternal salvation through the blood of Christ: repentance and belief. Also, there is another term, born again, which helps us view the salvation of the soul from a broader perspective. We shall briefly survey the use of these terms in order to get an overview of how one is born again in the New Testament.
The word repent is perhaps the most frequently employed term when the way of salvation is declared to Israelites in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Believe, on the other hand, is seldom employed in these gospels, but frequently found in John. Repent tends to view salvation more from the negative side. We are saved from eternal damnation as well as unto eternal life.
Repentance is urged as the means of averting the judgment of God on unbelievers. Frequently, when the word repent is found, judgment is nearby in the context:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”… But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with your repentance; …” (Matthew 3:2, 7-8).
And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:38-40).
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31; cf. also Romans 2:4:11-16; 2 Peter 3:9, 10).
Repentance is fundamentally a change of mind, which results in a change of behavior. Repentance involves a recognition of our sinful state and the dreadful consequences of our sin apart from faith in Christ. Before we can be saved, we must be convinced that we are lost and doomed. Repentance recognizes this and determines to make whatever changes are required to be saved. Repentance was frequently evidenced by baptism (cf. Acts 2:38) and always by works fitting this change of mind, heart and life (cf. Matthew 3:8).
If repentance speaks of the “about face” of the penitent sinner, especially his turning from sin and its resulting judgment, faith (the imperative form is believe) stresses the positive side of one’s turning toward God by faith in Christ, resulting in life.
“… that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:15-18).
“Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name every one who believes in Him has received forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43).
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).
Belief is a two-pronged matter. First, we must believe that, and secondly, we must believe in or upon. Faith must have content. The objective basis of faith is the sacrificial death of Christ. The historicity and absolute reliability of the gospels’ account of the birth, life, teachings, death, burial and resurrection of Christ are essential to the Christian’s faith. I have heard some naively say, “I don’t believe in doctrine; I believe in Jesus.” But which Jesus do they trust in? Is their Jesus virgin born, truly human and divine? Did He die a literal death and rise bodily from His grave? Doctrine defines the Jesus in Whom we trust. Faith in the wrong Jesus cannot save. Consequently, we must believe
… that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; … (Romans 10:9).
“And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69; cf. John 11:27, 42).
In the final analysis, to be a Christian one must believe in or upon the Lord Jesus Christ for eternal salvation. It is not the doctrine of the atonement that saves anyone, but the Christ Who died that saves. We must receive Him (John 1:12), and we must believe in Him (Acts 16:31) in order to be saved. While doctrine defines the Christ in Whom we trust, it is the person of Christ that we must place our trust in for eternal life (cf. 1 John 5:11-12). Salvation is forsaking any other means of salvation but Christ and casting ourselves fully upon Him for eternal life. We therefore believe that in Him we have died to sin, and in Him we have eternal life.
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).
For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions (Colossians 2:9-13).
While salvation is always accompanied by a change of mind (repentance) and faith in the work of Jesus Christ at Calvary, it is not a process which we can mechanically bring about. In the Bible there is no established procedure by which men are saved. In fact, the scriptures avoid recording any one method by which men came to faith. Everyone to whom our Lord presented the gospel was dealt with individually and not by means of some formula. Jesus’ use of the term “born again” in His discussion with Nicodemus most clearly illustrates this.
Now there was a man, of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is every one who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?” (John 3:1-10).
Nicodemus is almost the exact opposite of the woman at the well in John chapter 4. She was obviously a woman; he a man. She was a Samaritan; he was a Jew. She was ill-esteemed and of no position or prominence; he was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, and, in Jesus words “the teacher of Israel” (verse 10). And yet both of them were in need of salvation.
Nicodemus, as a Jew, felt that salvation was a national matter and that being born a child of Abraham was all that it took to be a child of God (cf. John 8:33,39). The first birth of Nicodemus did not save him. Instead, it constituted him a child of Adam, the sinner, and thus a child of wrath and an enemy of God (cf. Ephesians 2:1-3). In order to become a child of God, Nicodemus must be born spiritually, must be born again, this time into the family of God through Christ’s atoning work (cf. Romans 5:12-19).
Nicodemus was a man of his day. As a devout Jew, he had come to think more of a ritual than of righteousness, more of acts than of attitudes, more of ceremony than of spirit (or should I say Spirit?). Jesus had no standard form for salvation. He dealt very differently with Nicodemus than He did with the Samaritan woman. We are not even told by John that Nicodemus was saved at this time.31 Faith cannot be produced through formulas and so Jesus sought to stress that, in the final analysis, salvation is the work of the Spirit of God, Whose effects we may observe, but Whose working we cannot control or manipulate:
“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Of course, we must participate in the process of being saved, but we do not control the process; God the Spirit does. If the lost are to be saved, we must proclaim the message of salvation to men, for without this men will not be saved (Romans 10:14-15). Men must call upon the name of the Lord, and they must confess Him publicly as their Savior (Romans 10:9,10,13), but it is not a process which we can control. Salvation is fundamentally the work of God, and, chronologically, it begins with Him (John 1:12-13; Romans 9; Philippians 1:29).
I stress this because today the gospel has been so formulated that it is most often presented to unbelievers in a stereotyped fashion. Salvation is sometimes thought to result from following a prescribed formula rather than from simple faith. People believe that walking the aisle, raising their hand, reciting a prepared prayer or signing a card is what saved them, rather than faith in the work of Christ upon the cross in their place. While the two fundamental requirements for entering into the benefits of Calvary are repentance and faith, there is no mechanical method by which salvation can be obtained. Many people who walk the aisle are saved, but not all who walk an aisle are saved. External acts will not produce a genuine internal commitment, but a genuine faith will always evidence its existence by actions which are pleasing to God (cf. James 2:14-26; Ephesians 2:8-10).
Salvation is therefore always to be based upon the objective fact of Christ’s death in the sinner’s place, but conversion is a subjective matter involving repentance and faith, which cannot be equated with an act, but only evidenced by subsequent acts of obedience to the Word of God.
The essence of Christianity is narrow, for only the shed blood of Jesus Christ saves anyone. The expression of Christianity is exceedingly broad, for it affects every facet of our existence. In order to make my point, allow me to direct your attention to some of the biblical terms for the Christian which highlight various facets of the outworkings of our faith.
Christian. Christian is a very popular present-day term with a wide variety of connotations. Actually, it is found only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The suffix “ian” is similar in meaning to “ist” (Methodist, Baptist, etc.) or the somewhat more pejorative “ite” (I must admit that here I am reluctant to even give examples). A Christian is one who is a follower of Christ or who has allegiance to Christ.
Believer. A much more frequently employed term in the New Testament is believer (cf. Acts 5:14; 1 Timothy 4:10,12). We have already shown that belief must have some basis or content, so a believer is one who adheres to a particular system of beliefs, namely the teachings of the Bible. Then, in addition to a belief in the historical elements of our Lord’s life and death, a Christian believes in Christ Himself for salvation.
Follower. The gospels abound with references to following Jesus. Jesus invited men to follow Him (Mark 2:14), and Christians are said to be His followers:
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-28).
As a follower, a Christian is one who not only believes in Christ, but who follows Him. This implies much more than a mere conversion experience, but a way of life. It means that we will aspire to be like Him.
Disciple. Closely related is the term disciple. It refers not only to those of the 12 who followed our Lord (e.g. Matthew 5:1), but to those who were His disciples in other places at a time after His death, resurrection and ascension (Acts 11:26,29). Here a deeper level of commitment is implied, as well as a greater intimacy between the Master and the disciple. Primarily, a disciple is a learner and thus, his following Jesus is not out of curiosity but commitment.
Saint. The term saint is one which we shy away from using, especially with reference to ourselves. We know that in eternity we shall be like Him, but at the present time this label makes us feel uneasy because it hardly seems appropriate. While total sanctification will only occur at His coming, the term saint reminds us that holiness is an essential characteristic of the Christian. This is why Peter reminded us of the divine command, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) .
Brother. A vertical relationship with God also creates a horizontal one with all those who are saved. Thus, we frequently find Christians called brethren (cf. Acts 6:3; 9:30; 10:23; Romans 16:14, etc.). Christians were never called to be “Lone Rangers.” Each of us is a part of the body of Christ, with a vital function to perform and with certain needs which can only be met by others in the body (1 Corinthians 12).
Servant/Slave. By far, the least popular synonym for the Christian is that of servant or slave. And yet it is a very common word and, it would seem, one of Paul’s favorites when referring to himself (cf. Romans 1:1; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Philippians 1:1, etc.). Our Lord Himself was the supreme example of servanthood (Mark 10:45). He underscored this by washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-11). Leadership, in God’s Word, is assumed by servanthood (Matthew 20:27; Mark 10:44).
The overall impact of all of these terms (plus some others in the New Testament) is that while the essence of the gospel is very limited (to the blood of Christ ), the expression of one’s faith is boundless. I fear that in our presentation of the gospel today we have generalized the basis for one’s salvation, maximized the temporal and eternal benefits, and yet minimized the obligations. One is only saved through faith in the death of Christ. That salvation must be entered on the basis of the objective facts of the gospel through the subjective experience of repentance and faith, and objectified by a life of obedience and discipleship.
The first thing I am compelled to do after a survey of the doctrine of salvation is to ask this question: “My friend, is this the gospel which you have believed?” There are many other gospels, but they will not save (Galatians 1:6-9). The shed blood of Jesus Christ is not a part of the gospel, but the heart of it. I urge you to search your own heart for the basis of your eternal hope. If you are uncertain, affirm that you are a sinner, deserving of God’s eternal wrath. Submit yourself to God, relying only upon the work of Christ at Calvary for your forgiveness of sins and source of righteousness and eternal life. In the words of Paul, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Perhaps you are one of those who has thought of yourself as 80% saved. You believe about Jesus Christ and do many of the things Christians do (or don’t). But 80% is not enough in God’s book. May I suggest that you take the advice of the apostle,
Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5).
I would suggest that your test include a taking of your spiritual pulse to see if there is life. Some of the vital signs of spiritual life are:
If your life does not manifest these vital signs of spiritual life, I would suggest that you may need to be born again, much like the great, yet unsaved, religious leader of the Jews, Nicodemus.
I am personally exhorted by this message to commit myself to making the gospel clear as I share my faith with others. I desire not to use unbiblical terms and expressions, or those which fail to reflect the crux of Christianity … terms like “asking Christ into your life,” “finding Christ,” or “asking Jesus into your heart.” I hasten to say that these terms are wrong only to the extent that they mislead the lost or distort the meaning of the gospel. I desire to be much more intent upon communicating a message which is clear and therefore honoring to God than one which clouds the truth in the vain hope of saving more by some kind of misrepresentation. Isaiah, I recall, was not called to be a successful evangelist, but merely a faithful one (cf. Isaiah 6:1-13). I am reminded that I must rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing men and converting them, rather than upon mechanical techniques and formulas. And I intend, as God enables, to be more intent upon making disciples than mere converts (Matthew 28:18-20).
I am once again reminded of the grace of God and that salvation is of God, not of men. I am challenged to take the Lord’s Supper more seriously, for it is intended to constantly take me back to the cross where my salvation was wrought and where my spiritual victory has been achieved.
28 Mark A. Noll, “Are Protestants and Catholics Really that Different?” Christianity Today, April 18, 1980, p. 29. In this article, Noll reveals the distressing fact that a number of Catholics and a greater number of Protestants have an inadequate, if not heretical, view of Christ. If many of those who claimed to be “born again” have an erroneous view of Christ, their salvation is surely to be questioned.
31 In John 7:50ff. Nicodemus seems to speak in Jesus’ defense, and in John 19:39ff. he evidenced his faith by his act of devotion in assisting in the burial of our Lord’s body, at a time when such an act could be dangerous.
Each summer when my family and I go to Washington state to visit our families and friends, my father and I traditionally play our annual game of golf. This year my father and I went as a threesome with my uncle, who also happens to be a golf coach. My dad tactfully took me aside as we were approaching the clubhouse and gave me a bit of advice: “Bobby, why don’t you use your number three iron at first, until you gain a little confidence.” My answer tells you a lot about me: “Pop, I don’t have any trouble with confidence, just ability.”
Occasionally, though, I do lack a sense of security and self-confidence. I once worked as a school teacher in a medium-security prison in my home town in Washington state. In the prison school we had a guard who was stationed in the hall just outside the classroom. The guard, Mr. Look, was a man who was in control of things to such a degree that he inspired confidence in every teacher. He seemed to be almost omniscient (he always knew what the inmates were thinking), omnipresent (he seemed to be everywhere at once and to have eyes in the back of his head), and omnipotent (Mr. Look always got his way). From the teachers’ standpoint, Mr. Look was synonymous with security.
One week, however, Mr. Look went on vacation. The guard who took his place had neither the competence nor the confidence which all the teaching staff had come to expect. I must tell you that week was torture for all of us. No one had to tell us that matters were entirely in our hands. If we failed to control things in the classroom, we could expect little help from the guard outside. That week insecurity became a very real feeling which I had to contend with.
As I view the world in which we live, overconfidence may be a problem for some, but insecurity is epidemic in proportion. Science was once touted to be the savior of mankind. Now the ominous threat of the atom bomb hangs over our heads. Some would say that even if the bomb doesn’t kill us, nuclear power plants (such as Three Mile Island) will. The airplane has dramatically changed travel, but those of us who fly not only wonder if the plane will hold together, but we fear being hijacked to some foreign country or colliding in mid-air because of the air traffic controllers’ strike. The environment continues to become a garbage dump for all kinds of pollution and poison. The elderly are frightened to go out on the streets and yet afraid to be alone in their homes. And now the final blow has been struck—we are told that Social Security is no longer secure. And what little people have been able to save is being devoured by inflation.
With all of these sources of insecurity, some Christians would have us add yet another to our list—spiritual insecurity. They would tell us that it is possible for a person who has genuinely been converted, who has come to a personal trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, to lose that salvation through disobedience and sin. They want us to believe that we are only as secure as we are saintly. Because of this we must address ourselves to the subject of spiritual security.
I have chosen to approach the subject of the security of the saints in a somewhat backward fashion. I believe the Bible emphatically teaches the security of the saints, but first I want to show you that the doctrine of the security of the saints is not only true, but necessary. Insecurity is a devastating thing. I do not believe that it ever produces anything of eternal value. In order to demonstrate this I want to turn your attention to several instances in the Scriptures where insecurity has ruled the day. In this way we will see that security is essential to us, not only for our future, but also for day to day Christian living.
In Genesis 11 the people of Babel were insecure with the thought of spreading out and filling the earth as God had commanded (Genesis 9:7), so they set out to build a city with a tower in order to find their security in a city and a society. That project was cut short, and the people were dispersed by confusing their languages (Genesis 11:6-9). In Genesis 12 Abram was not secure in the promise of God in verses 1-3, so he fled to Egypt and resorted to deception to save his skin at his wife’s expense (verses l0ff.). This sin was repeated in chapter 20. In Genesis 16 Abram and Sarai felt insecure without a child to assure them of their future and the realization of God’s promises, so they set out to produce a child in their own way. The child which came from the union of Abram and Hagar brought only discord and sorrow (cf. 16:4ff.; 21:1ff.). In chapter 27 we find that Rebekah could not trust God to give Jacob preeminence over Esau as He had said (25:23), and so she sought to bring it about by intrigue and deception (27:5ff.), but at the cost of the son she most loved. She probably never saw him again before she died (27:41ff.). Over and over in Genesis insecurity was a major factor in actions which greatly displeased God and resulted in great suffering and sorrow for the saints. The same could be shown throughout Scripture.
Spiritual life, growth, and service is often etched away by the acid of insecurity. We must look for a biblical and more positive basis for spiritual motivation and ministry. A very significant part is played by the biblical teaching of the absolute security of the saint. It is to this truth that we are devoting our attention in this lesson.
Before we begin to defend spiritual security we must first define it. Spiritual security is the biblical teaching that a Christian is not only saved by God’s grace and power, but he is also kept by it. One who is truly born again can never relapse into the former state of being lost. Thus the saint is spiritually secure from the time of his salvation to the time of his glorification.
To put this into its simplest form, “Once saved, always saved.” To speak of it in more biblical terms, all those who have been chosen in eternity past and, in time, called and justified will, without exception, be glorified:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these he also justified and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
There is not so much as a hint that some will be lost from one step to another in the divinely directed process from election to glorification because it is God who is working all things together for good.
This doctrine of the security of the saints is based upon several biblical assumptions.
First, we assume that not all who profess to be saved are actually saved:
“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22-23; cf. also James 2:14-26).
Some will appear to be Christians who never were.
Second, we must regretfully admit that some who are genuinely saved may not, at a given point in time, appear to be a Christian. In the Old Testament Pharaoh might not think Abram to be saved as he lied about Sarai (Genesis 12), nor does David seem to be a saint when he took Uriah’s wife and his life (2 Samuel 11). In the New Testament, Peter did not appear to belong to our Lord when he denied Him (Luke 22:54-62), nor did the man who was living with his father’s wife, an act considered pagan by unbelievers (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). The doctrine of the security of the saint does not mean that a Christian cannot fall, but only that his salvation will never fail:
The steps of a man are established by the LORD; And He delights in his way. When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong; because the LORD is the one who holds his hand (Psalm 37:23-24).
Third, we must say that the doctrine of the security of the saints does not mean that all who are truly saved will necessarily feel so at any given moment in time. There is a great deal of difference between security and assurance. Security is a reality, while assurance is our perception of this reality. Security is a fact; assurance is a feeling. At times of sinfulness and disobedience, assurance is frequently lacking, but security is not.
Fourth, I have chosen for a definite reason to employ the expression “spiritual security” instead of the more familiar “eternal security.” While it need not be so, there is the implication in the latter expression that while my eternal destiny is secure, my day to day experience is a horse of a different color. I can be sure of going to heaven, but there is considerable doubt whether or not God’s purposes for my life will be realized. If I make but one mistake, some think, I will throw God’s plan for my life irreversibly off course. That is not spiritual security, for spiritual security assures me that God’s purpose to bring me to glory will certainly be realized, just as His purpose of bringing glory to Himself through me in this life will be (Romans 8:28-39; Philippians 1:6).
We know that Daniel continued to pray to his God even when the Law of the land prohibited it. We are not surprised when God shut the mouths of the lions because Daniel trusted his God and obeyed Him (cf. Daniel 6). Similarly, Daniel’s three friends were delivered out of the fiery furnace because they trusted in God (Daniel 3). Abraham obeyed God by taking his son Isaac to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice him as God had commanded, and God spared his son (Genesis 22). In all of these situations God preserved and protected men when they were faithful to Him. But what of those times when men choose to disobey?
The doctrine of spiritual security maintains that God’s purposes for our lives will be realized in spite of our disobedience. God promised to bless Abraham and the world through him (Genesis 12:1-3, etc.). He protected and even prospered Abram and Sarai in Egypt when they lied (Genesis 12:10ff). God purposed that Messiah would come through the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:8-12). Judah, however, was willing to enter into marriage with a Canaanite and into a sexual union with a woman he thought to be a cult prostitute. His sons were wicked and sought to avoid having children through Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, but God nevertheless provided a son, Perez, who would be the ancestor of our Lord (Genesis 38). The book of Esther describes the fate of those Jews who chose to remain in Persia when they could have (and should have) returned to the promised land. By and large, the people of God were in unbelief. Throughout the book the future of these Jews seems to hang by a thread, but God saved them in spite of their unbelief and scheming. It was the purpose of God to bring the Ninevites to repentance through the preaching of Jonah. While Jonah arrived somewhat later than might have been the case, and certainly shaken by his experience, nevertheless he preached and many were saved, despite Jonah’s disgruntled attitude, even at the last of the book.
God’s purposes are not dependent upon our willful or joyful cooperation. When we choose to trust and obey, we have the privilege of participating knowingly and joyfully in God’s work through us. But when we disobey, God uses us anyway. The difference is that He uses us without our being aware of it, without our experience of the peace and joy that results from obedience, and often with the painful consequences brought about by our waywardness. Thus Joseph’s brothers accomplished the will of God (cf. Genesis 50:20), but unknowingly. And they went through much unnecessary grief and anxiety because of their sin. Yet in all of this the plan of God was being carried out without a hitch (cf. Genesis 37-50). Whether we respond to God’s leading or resist it, God’s will is accomplished. Therein is spiritual security.
Fifth, while I am spiritually secure from the moment I have been born again, pursuing a life of sin and disobedience is ill-advised:
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).
The sinner here was a true Christian, I believe. He had done that which shocked even the pagans and brought discredit to our Lord and His church. The discipline which Paul urged was intended to restore this brother, a course of action that was effective (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Paul said that while his flesh might be destroyed, his spirit would be saved. Spiritually this sinning saint was secure, eternally secure, but he was nevertheless in great danger. God has ways of dealing with sin besides revoking salvation. Being turned over to Satan is a frightening possibility. Our souls are secure in the Lord, now and forever, but we still may reap the consequences of divine chastening if we choose to take the grace of God lightly.
The doctrine of our spiritual security is not just true because we want it to be so and not even because we need it to be true; it is a fact because the Bible boldly states this to be the case. While there are many lines of proof for the security of the saints, I will focus on some of those which are most striking to me.
(1) The saints are spiritually secure because the Scriptures say so. Our Lord Himself assured us of our security in Him:
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
Several things in this passage support the conclusion that our Lord assured the Christian of his spiritual security. His sheep, true sheep (not hogs or dogs—2 Peter 2:22) listened to Him, recognized His voice and followed Him, as opposed to false teachers (John 10:5,14,26). The sheep of our Lord are given eternal life, and their security is as certain as the strength of God to keep them. Since the Father is greater than all, no one can snatch us from His hand (verse 29).
Let your way of life be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
Christians should never seek their security from riches, for such security is uncertain (cf. 1 Timothy 6:17). Instead we should be content with what we have, for true security is in Him who will never leave us nor forsake us.
What Jesus promised, Paul preached:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life (Romans 5:8-10).
Paul says that our victory was won on the cross of Calvary through. Christ, who died and was raised again. Our victory is in Him, and nothing can separate us from His love. In Romans 5 the certainty of His love is stressed by contrasting our past condition with our present state. He died for us while we were yet in our sins, His enemies, and resisting His will. If His love was such that He would die for His enemies, how much more we can be confident of being kept since we are now members of His family. If He saved us as enemies, surely He will keep us as members of the family.
Paul has yet another argument for our security. His confidence in the keeping power of God is unshakable because God always finishes what He begins:
For I can confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
Here is the fundamental issue in the matter of our security: who initiated our salvation, God or us? The song says, “If you’ll take one step toward the Savior, my friend, you’ll find His arms open wide.” It would appear from the song that it is man who makes the first move, but the song is wrong. Notice what Paul says in Philippians 1:29:
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.
Now this verse tells us that it is God who has granted us to believe. Other passages bear out this same point:
… and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).
… and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).
“You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you” (John 15:16).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ-, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will (Ephesians 1:3-5; cf. also 2:1-10).
When we were dead in our sins, enemies of God (Ephesians 2:1-3), not seeking Him (Romans 3:10-18), He chose us, sent His Son to Calvary, regenerated us by His Spirit, and drew us to Himself. Salvation begins with God, and therefore God will finish what He began.
Peter reiterates what Jesus promised and Paul preached:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5).
The writer to the Hebrews says plainly that God both initiates and completes our salvation:
… fixing our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).
Heaven, Peter assures us, is kept securely for us. Frankly, I have never stayed up nights worrying about that. More important for me is the promise that we are being kept for it, by God’s power.32
(2) In addition to explicit statements in the Scriptures there are also many implicit assurances of the security of the saints. We know that God is omniscient (that is, He knows all). Knowing all means that God knew all of our sins long before He ever chose us (in eternity past) or called us. How inconceivable it is to think that an omniscient God would save us from some of our sins, all the while knowing that by other sins we would be lost. Since God is immutable (that is, He never changes), His purposes never change, nor do His promises, nor does His love. If God’s love does not change, nor His purposes, and His power is greater than all, how can we ever be lost, having once been saved? The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29).
(3) We never find any instance in the Bible, Old or New Testament, where one who was once saved lost his salvation. David sinned greatly, but he was restored. Peter denied his Lord, but he had a position of prominence in His church. And even the man who lived with his father’s wife was considered spiritually secure (1 Corinthians 5:5). And lest someone object that these men were all lost and then saved once again, let me remind you of this passage:
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame (Hebrews 6:4-6; emphasis added).
If it were possible to be lost after once being saved (which it is not),33 then that one would be lost forever.
(4) Finally, the character of God demands that the saints be spiritually secure. In Exodus 32 we find the nation Israel had quickly turned from true worship and had become involved in idolatry (verses 1-6). While I am reading between the lines, I do not believe that God was as willing to give up on the Israelites as was Moses, who, I think, was ready to resign. The interchange between God and His servant was a brilliant stroke, for it caused Moses to intercede for the Israelites, pleading with God to preserve them.
Notice how God chose His words to suggest that these people were really the responsibility of Moses when the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Exodus 32:7; emphasis added).
Since when were the Israelites Moses’ people? They were God’s chosen people! It would seem that neither Moses nor God wanted them at the moment. It sounds something like our house when our children have misbehaved. I tell my wife to deal with her children, and she insists that they are mine.
I do not think for a moment that Moses’ answer really changed God’s mind,34 but I do believe that it changed his. How could God give up on the nation of Israel? He had publicly identified with them in Egypt and brought about their miraculous release by the plagues and bringing them through the Red Sea. Moses told God that all the nations knew of this. If He were to fail to finish what He started, it would be His reputation that would be blemished. Like it or not, Moses seemed to be saying, God could not give up on His people, even if He wanted to, because it was His reputation that was on the line.
Isn’t that a comforting thought? God has committed Himself to saving us and to completing the work of salvation by glorifying us with Him in heaven. All of heaven looks on with keen interest (1 Corinthians 11:10; 1 Peter 1:12). His glory is to be realized by our redemption:
In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:13-14).
… in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 3:10-11).
Most of us are probably familiar with the little Peanuts book which carried out the theme “Happiness is …” I would like to give you my version of “Security is …” only without the cartoons to accompany it.
The biblical teaching of the spiritual security of the saints provides us with several principles which we need to understand and apply in our Christian experience:
(1) While fear has value as a deterrent, it is security and faith that motivate us to steadfast service.
For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil (Romans 13:3-4).
Fear has the beneficial effect of causing some to turn away from evil. Fear of eternal judgment has a very definite part to play in the conversion of the lost (cf. John 16:8; Acts 2:14ff., 16:29), but it does not provide an adequate or satisfactory basis for a life of service. A life of service is the result of spiritual security. Jesus frequently used the comforting words, “Fear not” (cf. Luke 5:10, 12:7, etc.). John wrote,
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love (1 John 4:18).
I believe that Timothy was a man who lacked confidence. I do not think it is difficult to see that he was a timid person who needed encouragement from Paul. In his second epistle to Timothy it was necessary for Paul to exhort him to diligence in the ministry to which he was called and for which God had gifted him:
And for this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, or of me His prisoner; but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God (2 Timothy 1:6-8).
In this same context Paul underscored the confidence and security he had in Christ, a confidence which Timothy should share:
For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day (2 Timothy 1:12).
The writer to the Hebrews, who were tempted to shrink back in a time of testing, stresses the confidence which should be the basis for boldness and endurance:
Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our body washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:19-25).35
In the long term, fear does not motivate the saints to be saintly. If the security of my salvation were dependent upon my own faithfulness rather than upon God’s, I would just as well bail out early and avoid the rush. If my salvation is secure, even when I fail, I cannot lose, and therefore I can invest my life in God with the utmost of confidence.
May I go so far as to suggest that if fear has only a deterring value, while security has a positive and constructive dimension, we need to ask ourselves what motivation we are employing to promote the security of others. Marriages today are entered into with the understanding that if the union fails to produce all that we had hoped for, the union must be set aside. That is burdening marriage with a deadly sense of insecurity. Who is willing to invest everything in a relationship which is structured to fail? Permanence promises security, and security promotes long-tem investment. Do we imply to our mates that we will love them if …? Do our children conclude that we only love them when …? That is insecurity, and it does no more for our families than it does for our faith. Let us put aside all such things. And if insecurity does not work well in the family, I suspect it is unproductive in the factory or anywhere else.
(2) The security of the saints was never intended to encourage slothfulness or sin in the Christian’s life. The major objection to the doctrine of the security of the saints is not exegetical or biblical, but practical: “Once saved, always saved means that once I am saved I can live any way I wish and still go to heaven.” In one sense this is hypothetically true. Nothing I can do, once I am saved, will cause me to lose my salvation. But let me remind you, as I often do, that just because a doctrine is wrongly applied does not mean that the doctrine itself is wrong. Any truth can be misapplied and yet still be true.
The doctrine of spiritual security means that when I sin as a saint God will deal with me as a son, not as a stranger:
For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood, in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it-, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble (Hebrews 12:3-12).
Now I must tell you that when I was naughty as a boy it was of little comfort, at the moment, to know it was my father who would be giving me my “licks.” Because he was my father, I knew that he had much more invested in me than the next-door neighbor or a total stranger. Consequently, those spankings hurt a lot.
When I was in elementary school one of the ways I found to get out of class was to be a projectionist. As such, my friend Rickey and I had a great deal more freedom than our peers. One day Rickey and I were careening down the hall at breakneck speed with the projector, cart, and all. As we executed a particularly skillfully banked corner, we ran into my father. He was the last teacher in that building I wanted to meet under such circumstances. Fathers do not go lightly on their sons if they love them. But when all is said and done, I never questioned the fact that I was still a son. Chastening is bearable, but being disowned is something entirely different. That is something the Christian need never fear.
(3) While our security is founded upon the promises of God, it is ultimately rooted in the person of God. No promise is any better than the person who has given it. Because God is omniscient, omnipotent, loving, merciful, and changeless I know that I will ever be secure in His salvation.
I find that Christians today are placing more emphasis upon the quality and quantity of their faith than upon the object of their faith. I may have great faith that I can fly by flapping my arms feverishly, but if I jump off a cliff with faith in my arms, I’ll die. On the other hand, I may have a weak and faltering faith in the 747 leaving Dallas/Ft. Worth today, but that plane is completely trustworthy. The object of my faith is far more important than the amount of my faith. Many will perish because they have much faith in the wrong object. When we wish to be assured of our security, we would do well to focus more upon the object—God Himself, His attributes, His character, His faithfulness in history (e.g., Psalm 78)—than upon our faith. In the words of one more honest than many of us, “I do believe; help me in my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
(4) A security that is based upon anything other than God Himself and the work of His Son on Calvary is a false security, doomed to disappoint us. Money, for example, is not a firm foundation for our security:
A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, And like a high wall in his own imagination (Proverbs 18:11).
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17).
Our security is not in money, not in our position or power, not in our friends, but only in God.
(5) The saint is never more secure than when he has no visible means of support. It is easy for Christians to glibly say that we trust only in God. After all, even our coins say this. But in reality most of us trust in God and our bank account, our influence, our abilities, and our accomplishments. Nearly every Christian has “something up his sleeve,” so to speak, some extra hedge against insecurity. God has a marvelous way of pulling these “props” out from under us, gently and one at a time (usually), but surely. Abraham, for example, seemed to rely upon his relatives. While he was commanded to leave both his country and his relatives, he did not leave Terah, his father, but Terah left him in death, after taking the family to Haran (cf. Genesis 1:27-32; 12:1; Acts 7:2-4). Only reluctantly and after considerable time did Abraham leave Lot behind. Then he clung to Ishmael, whom God said had to be sent away. Finally it was Isaac who was Abraham’s sole source of security, and so God had to test his faith by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22).
The message of the book of Hebrews is that our faith is not in earthly, visible things, but in God alone and in His promises of a new and better land, for which we still wait: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:1, 13-16).
If security is to be found only in God, then I now have an entirely different outlook on the matter of suffering. Suffering causes me to take His Word more seriously:
Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep thy word (Psalm 119:67).
It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Thy statutes (Psalm 119:71).
If Thy Law had not been my delight, Then I would have perished in my affliction (Psalm 119:92).
Suffering makes me cling more loosely to the things of this life and to yearn for Him:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:8).
In short, suffering and affliction force me to find my security only in God:
Whom have I in heaven but thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge. That I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:25-28).
The song writer has grasped the security of the saints and has penned these words of comfort and praise:
More secure is no one ever Than the loved ones of the Saviour
Not yon star on high abiding Nor the bird in home nest hiding.
God His own doth tend and nourish, In His holy courts they flourish;
Like a father kind He spares them. In His loving arms He bears them.
Neither life nor death can ever From the Lord His children sever,
For His love and deep compassion comforts them in tribulation.
Little flock, to joy then yield thee! Jacob’s God will ever shield thee;
Rest secure with this Defender, At His will all foes surrender.
What He takes or what He gives us Shows the Father’s love so precious:
We may trust His purpose wholly Tis His children’s welfare solely.
The security of which we have been speaking does not belong to all men by right, but it is a part of the salvation God has offered to men through faith in the shed blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. He died for your sins; He was raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. He intercedes for His own, and in Him every true believer has absolute security for time and eternity. If you have never trusted in Him, I urge you to acknowledge your sinful state of rebellion against God and to cease trusting for your spiritual security in anything other than what our Lord has accomplished for you at Calvary.
32 One may hasten to point out that we are “protected by the power of God through faith.” But since faith itself is a gift from God and not of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-10), we know that keeping us is God’s work.
33 Many interpretations of Hebrews 6 are to be found, but regardless of which you choose, the point remains: a Christian, if he could be lost, could not be re-saved. While some believe that this passage speaks of those who are only acquainted with the gospel and therefore never (yet) saved, I believe it to be a hypothetical argument intended to spur true Christians on to deeper things (cf. 5:11-6:3). If a Christian could be lost and then re-saved, the gospel should be the continual diet of the Christian (or ex-Christian, if he has sinned lately). But if no one can be re-saved, the subject of their study should be the deeper truths beyond that of salvation. Many churches who pride themselves for preaching the gospel every service should seriously consider this word from the writer to the Hebrews.
34 The statement of verse 14 is thus anthropomorphic; that is, it describes the event as Moses perceived it and not as it was precisely. In the same way we say that the sun rises, for so it appears, yet we know there is a different scientific explanation. Similarly, our Lord in Luke 24:28 seemed intent upon leaving the two disciples and going His way, but they persuaded Him to dine with them (verse 29). God is free to change His actions, but His attributes and His decrees do not change.
35 You might ask, “But aren’t the following verses (26-31) proof of the Arminian argument that we can lose our salvation?” The confidence of which the writer speaks in verses 19-25 is that which we have in Christ, as true believers. The dread of which he writes in verses 26-31 is that which is to befall those who have rejected the work of Christ, who are His adversaries (verse 27), who have disregarded our Lord and insulted His Holy Spirit (verse 29).
I have a friend whose experience gives us some insight into the doctrine of the grace of God. He had just returned from Viet Nam where he had served in the Army. Upon his release he had sufficient funds to fulfill a long-time desire to own a new Jaguar. Early one morning he was driving in a remotely populated part of Oklahoma which, he reasoned, was the perfect place to find out how fast the car could go. The speedometer was easing its way past 160 as the powerful sports car reached the top of a small rise. Just beyond, a highway patrolman was waiting. A law-abiding citizen, my friend slammed on the brakes, slid past the officer at 150 miles per hour, and came to a halt some distance down the road.
Before long, the officer caught up and stood beside the sleek convertible. “Do you have any idea how fast you were going?” he inquired. “Well, roughly,” was the deliberately evasive reply. “One hundred sixty-three miles per hour!” the officer specified. “That’s about what I thought,” my friend confessed, somewhat sheepishly. Guilt was obvious, and there was no possible excuse to be offered. My friend could only wait to discover what this fiasco was going to cost. He meekly waited for the officer to proceed. To his amazement the patrolman queried, “Would you mind if I took a look at that engine?”
The fine points of high performance automobiles cannot be discussed quickly, so both went on to a coffee shop where they could talk further. A while later, both of the men shook hands and went their separate ways. My friend was elated, for the officer had not given him a citation.
That is about as close to grace as one can come on this earth, but it is still not quite up to the standard of biblical grace. (I say that because biblical grace would be demonstrated only if the patrolman had paid for the coffee.)
The principle of grace is as fundamental to Christianity as that of justice is to Law, or love is to marriage. Christianity cannot be understood apart from an adequate grasp of grace. The doctrine of grace distinguishes the Christian faith from every other religion in the world, as well as from the cults.36 Rightly understood and applied, the doctrine of grace can revolutionize one’s Christian life. It is for this reason that we have determined to spend the next three lessons on this fundamental doctrine.
As I approach this study of the grace of God I am fully aware of the fact that most Christians suppose they know all they need to on the subject. A major factor in this misconception is that quick and easy definitions have been given for grace. Grace, we all know, is God’s unmerited favor. In acrostic fashion we have been taught to define grace as God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense … GRACE. These are simply inadequate, and thus we must devote this entire message to a more precise definition of grace. We will attempt to accomplish this by a series of statements or propositions which will be explained in some detail.
(1) Grace is a part of the character of God. Grace is most frequently spoken of as a commodity, that is distributed, and such it is. But first and foremost, grace is a description of the character of God, which is displayed by His gifts to men. God is a God of grace, and He desires to make this known not only to men, but also to the angelic hosts.
He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:5-12).
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:1-10).
This attribute of grace37 has always been a part of God’s character since God is immutable or changeless (cf. James 1:17). Some have supposed that the God of the Old Testament is someone other than the God of the New. But we know that the grace of God is frequently evidenced in the Old Testament Scriptures. Men of God knew Him as a God of grace.
But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; And often He restrained His anger, And did not arouse all His wrath (Psalm 78:38).
“And they refused to listen, And did not remember Thy wondrous deeds which Thou hadst performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But Thou art a God of forgiveness, Gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness; And Thou didst not forsake them” (Nehemiah 9:17).
The grace of God was that attribute which most displeased Jonah, the “pouting prophet,” as some have called him. God called him to preach to the Ninevites, knowing that the Assyrians would later serve as His chastening rod on disobedient Israel. Jonah foolishly fled to Tarshish, attempting to thwart the will of God. By means of a storm, some sailors, and a large fish God arranged a change in his plans. Eventually Jonah did preach to the Ninevites, but his response to their repentance was disgraceful:
But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:1-2).
It was the grace of God that angered Jonah because this time grace was granted to the enemies of Israel. To Jonah, patriotism was more important than preaching or piety. Ironically, it was grace which kept God from dealing with Jonah as severely as his sin would require. How gently God asked Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (4:4).
David sinned by numbering the Israelites, contrary to the advice of Joab (1 Chronicles 21:1ff.). God rebuked David through the prophet Gad, giving him a choice of one of three calamities: three years of famine; three months of defeat by the hand of their enemies; or three days at the hand of the Lord (verses 11-12). David’s response reveals his grasp of the grace of God:
“I am in great distress; please let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are very great. But do not let me fall into the hand of man” (verse 13).
The gracious character of God was fully manifested in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the revealer of the Father (John 1:18), the exact representation of the Father (Hebrews 1:3):
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ (John 1:14, 17).
Paul can therefore write to Titus:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men (Titus 2:11).
In both His words (Luke 4:22) and His works (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 6:31, etc.) Jesus demonstrated grace. He did not come to judge or to condemn, but to forgive and to save (John 3:16-17; 8:10-11).
We can do nothing else but conclude that God is, was, and will ever be a God of grace. That is His character, and it is therefore the ultimate cause of His graciousness toward men.
(2) Grace is epitomized on the cross of Calvary. While the grace of God is described in the Old Testament, it is not defined until the New Testament. I believe that we cannot grasp the grace of God except in the light of Calvary.
Grace is not merely a part of the plan of redemption, but it is the silver cord that runs through every facet of the work of redemption. Election, the sovereign choice made in eternity past of those who would be saved (cf. Ephesians 1:4), is called a “choice of grace” (Romans 11:5, NASV margin).38 The entire work of Christ in coming to earth, dying for sinners, and being crowned with glory, is said by the writer to the Hebrews to be “by the grace of God” (Hebrews 2:9). In no way was this prompted by man (cf. Romans 10:6-8). Our redemption is “according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7). Our calling (cf. Romans 8:28, 30), the sovereign act of God by which we are drawn irresistibly to Him, is said to be “through His grace” (Galatians 1:15). Justification, that judicial pronouncement that we are innocent of any guilt and whereby we are declared righteous through the work of Christ, is a gift of His grace (Romans 3:24; Titus 3:7). When all is said and done, every element of the work of salvation is the work of God through grace and not of our own making. Men believe by the grace of God:
And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he helped greatly those who had believed through grace (Acts 18:27).
The terms “salvation” and “grace” therefore become virtually synonymous:
… which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth (Colossians 1:6).
The gospel is the “gospel of grace” (Acts 20:24); the Scriptures are the “word of His grace” (Acts 14:3; 20:32).
(3) While grace has always existed as a part of the character of God and was epitomized on the cross of Christ, it is expressed in a wide variety of forms. Grace takes many forms in the Bible, and it is well to define it so that the diversity of these forms is taken into account. Since we will discuss some of these later in greater detail, let me briefly enumerate some of the forms which grace takes.
Common grace is that benevolence which is poured out upon all men, regardless of their spiritual condition:
“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).
“And in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with good and gladness” (Acts 14:16-17).
God is gracious in making provision for the salvation of all men39 and in commanding its universal proclamation. He is also gracious in delaying judgment, thereby giving men ample time to repent (2 Peter 3:9). One might also imply that God is gracious in not revealing more than He does to those who reject Him, since greater knowledge brings greater judgment (cf. Luke 12:47-48).
Saving grace is that generous provision of salvation on the cross of Calvary and the securing of it by divine intervention, as we have already outlined above.
“But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:11).
Securing grace is that manifestation of God’s benevolence by which Christians are kept secure in spite of sin.
Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1-2).
Through Silvanus, our faithful brother (for so I regard him), I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it! (1 Peter 5:12).
Just as a lost man cannot obtain salvation through any good work of his own, neither can the Christian maintain his salvation by doing good works. Salvation is obtained and maintained by grace alone.
Sanctifying grace is that grace which works within the true believer in such a way as to bring growth, maturity, and progress in the process of becoming Christ-like:
Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God (Acts 13:43).
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:18)
Serving grace is the enablement to minister in such a way as to manifest the life of our Lord through the saints as members of His body. It refers to acts of generosity and giving (cf. Acts 4:33ff.; 2 Corinthians 8:1ff.). It specifically refers to spiritual gifts (the term “gift” is a derivative of the word “grace”).
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift (Ephesians 4:7).
As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God (1 Peter 4:10).
Sustaining grace is grace given at special times of need, especially during adversity or suffering.
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
Perhaps some of these distinctions are a bit arbitrary, but the point remains that grace is manifested in a variety of ways. Grace seeks us and saves us; grace keeps us secure; grace enables us to serve and to endure the tests and trials of life. Grace will bring about our sanctification in this life and will ultimately bring us to glory. From beginning to end we are the object of divine grace.
(4) Grace is pure. If we were to describe grace to the chemist, we would say that grace is an element, not a compound. In more biblical terms, grace is never a mixture of divine benevolence and human effort:
Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness (Romans 4:4-5).
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace (Romans 11:6).
Grace is entirely the work of God, unprompted by man, undeserved by man, and without regard to anything that the object of grace will later accomplish:
And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger” (Romans 9:10-12).
It was God’s choice that Jacob rule over Esau without regard to any works which either would do; in fact, Jacob was chosen even before he was born. A longer look at the life of Jacob would indicate that God’s purposes for Jacob’s life were accomplished in spite of him.
J. I. Packer describes grace this way:
What is grace? In the New Testament grace means God’s love in action towards men who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves. Grace means God sending His only Son to descend into hell on the cross so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven. ‘(God) hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).40
To make even the slightest contribution to our salvation is to rule out the possibility of grace. For one thing, any contribution on our part would be exaggerated in our own minds. Someone has told the story of a man who was condemned to death for embezzlement. The royal family took pity on the man, however, and determined to help him. The king contributed $2000 from the royal treasury, while the queen gave $1000 and the crown prince $980. The people in the gallery passed the plate and collected another contribution of $19.90. The total amount of $3999.90 was only a dime short of that which was required, but it was not enough. The king reluctantly said that the man had to die. The crowd in the gallery sighed. Suddenly the condemned man reached into his pocket and found a dime, just what he needed. He was free!
The point of this story is that no matter how small the contribution of the condemned man, it would become, in his mind, of too great importance. God is demonstrating His grace to the world and the angelic hosts (Ephesians 1:3-12), and He will not share His glory with sinful man. It is either all of grace or it is not grace at all.
Worse yet, our efforts to contribute to God’s saving grace are an affront to Him. Suppose, as someone has suggested, that the President of the United States invites you to a magnificent banquet. It is an evening that you will never forget. But as you leave that evening you greet the President at the door and wish to show your appreciation. You say to him, “Mr. President, I want to thank you so much for the wonderful evening. I know this must have been a very great expense, so I would like to make a small contribution to help cover the cost.” You then press a dime into his hand and leave. That is no compliment. That is an insult! Grace does not require, nor will it accept, any contributions from its recipients.
All of this has been stated somewhat negatively. In reality, though, this is a very positive truth: the grace of God is absolutely free! We do not have to earn it—indeed we cannot earn it. This truth is not an easy one to believe because we have come to doubt that anything can really be free any more. An advertisement tells us that we will get a free pizza, but the small print informs us that we have to buy a large pizza first. We are promised a weekend on the lake with $50 spending money, but we know that we will be open game for the salesman so long as we are there. God’s grace is not like that. We cannot earn it, nor will we find that after we are saved we come to regret our decision because of some small print in God’s offer of salvation.
(5) Grace is sovereign. Since we have no claim on God’s grace and cannot contribute anything to it, then grace must be sovereignly bestowed. As God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Exodus 33:19; cf. Romans 9:15). The necessary conclusion is that which follows in Romans 9:16:
So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs but on God who has mercy.
Some are greatly troubled by the fact that grace is bestowed sovereignly, but what other basis is there for its distribution? In Romans 9:14 Paul asks the question: Can God be just when grace is given to some but not to others? He answers his own question by reminding the reader that justice can only condemn all men, for all have sinned. We dare not plead for justice with God, for justice can only be satisfied by our condemnation. Grace operates on a totally different basis. Grace does not give men what they deserve, but what God delights to give, in spite of their sin. God is only unjust if He withholds from men benefits which they rightfully deserve, but He is gracious in bestowing upon men salvation and blessings which they could never merit. C. I. Scofield has been quoted as saying,
Grace is not looking for good men whom it may approve, for it is not grace but mere justice to approve goodness. But it is looking for condemned, guilty, speechless and helpless men whom it may save, sanctify and glorify.41
(6) While the Law is the standard of righteousness, grace is the source of righteousness. While the Law defines righteousness, only grace delivers it. The Law was never intended to be a means of obtaining grace; it was given to demonstrate to men that grace was desperately needed:
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets (Romans 3:19-21).
At its heart, legalism is a humanly-devised system whereby a man may strive to produce his own righteousness by rigid adherence to a prescribed code of conduct. It is almost always external in nature, that is, it evaluates actions rather than attitudes and motives (cf. Matthew 6:1ff.). Worse yet, legalism tends to lower the standards God has set. In the Sermon on the Mount our Lord persisted in raising the standards set by the scribes and Pharisees, not lowering them (cf. Matthew 5:17-48). Because of their lowering of God’s standards the rich young ruler could unashamedly say to our Lord, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up” (Mark 10:20). What an incredible thing to be able to say. Only a legalist could do so. While the legalists of Jesus’ day placed burdens on men that they could not bear (Matthew 23:4), they found all sorts of loopholes by which to avoid the demands their traditions made on others (Matthew 23:16-24). Jesus lightened the burden, not by lowering God’s standards, but by providing enablement to meet them (Matthew 11:28-30; Romans 8:1-4).
No matter how pious legalism appears on the outside, it dishonors God by revealing a deep-seated distrust of God. Stop and think about it for a minute. Why do men insist upon putting agreements in writing? Why are legal contracts necessary? For only one reason—men are fallible. At best, we tend to forget the things we have committed to do. At worst, we never intended to do them in the first place. A legal contract gives one man a basis for forcing another to do what he has promised.
Do you really believe God is so unreliable that we must create a contract which binds Him? All of the biblical covenants are those which were initiated by God, not man. And most of these covenants are unconditional; that is, they are not conditioned by any action on man’s part, but only on the faithfulness of God Himself. Legalism by its very nature implies that God is so untrustworthy that we must be sure to get it down in contractual form. Far better it is to leave blessings in the hand of the One who is gracious.
I heard a true story which serves to illustrate this point. Not many years ago most employers discriminated greatly in their hiring practices (as many still do!). As a result it was necessary to attempt to correct this evil by passing Laws which punished discrimination. One afternoon an employer was called upon by a minority labor leader, who demanded that a certain number of minority laborers be hired immediately. The employer thought about it for a moment and then picked up the phone, instructing his secretary, “Miss Jones, I want you to fire the last 25 minority laborers I hired.” The reason, he explained to the demanding leader, was that he had hired 25 more minority laborers than the Law had required. Now I do not wish in any way to condone or condemn what either of those men did. I simply wish to point out that the demands of the Law are only required where evil men are involved (cf. 1 Timothy 1:9-10). Where grace prevails, Law will only restrict gracious activity, not promote it. Legalism cannot co-exist with grace:
You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by Law; you have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4).
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under Law, but under grace (Romans 6:14).
(7) Grace is given only to the humble. When our Lord came to the earth, He came to minister to the poor, the suffering, the needy. To the “poor in spirit” Jesus offered the riches of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus had come to this earth in order to minister to those who were in need and knew it. When Jesus chose to associate with the needy rather than with the elite of His day, it greatly offended the Jewish religious leaders:
And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?” And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:16-17).
Pride offended turned to jealousy (cf. Mark 15:10), so that if the religious leaders of Israel couldn’t persuade Jesus to endorse their ideology, they concluded that He must be done away with (cf. John 11:47-50).
Jesus put His finger on this matter of pride when He told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer in Luke 18. The Pharisee had no appreciation for his own sinfulness, and thus he could pray, “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12). The tax-gatherer, however, was humbled by the awareness of his sinful condition and so petitioned a gracious God for mercy: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Jesus said it was this humble sinner who went home justified (verse 14).
Grace is the goodness of God on behalf of sinners who humbly acknowledge their own deficiency and thus their dependence upon God’s grace for forgiveness and salvation:
But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; cf. 1 Peter 5:5).
(8) While sin is an occasion for grace, grace is never to be an occasion for sin. Many of the objections to the biblical doctrine of grace originate from the abuses of this doctrine in the lives of Christians. Any biblical doctrine can be misapplied in such a way as to justify sin in our lives. In Romans 5 Paul taught that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (verse 20), but he quickly went on to say that this is no incentive to careless living:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2)
We who have died to sin cannot casually and carelessly persist in sin, for it is inconsistent with our new life in Christ. Grace must never be used as an excuse for sin:
Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God (1 Peter 2:16).
(9) Grace is always granted in harmony with God’s other attributes. It is possible at this point to misunderstand the grace of God by supposing that grace somehow is granted at the expense of God’s holiness or His justice. Nothing could be further from the truth. Grace does not set aside the requirements of justice; it satisfies them. The Christian is no longer guilty before God and need not stand under the condemnation of God for sin. But someone does have to pay the penalty for sin. For the Christian that person is our Lord Jesus Christ:
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In Romans 3 Paul dealt with the need for grace to be shown in such a way as not to violate the justice of God:
Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24-26).
Grace, then, meets the demands of justice and holiness rather than to set them aside. Grace is never granted at the expense of any of God’s attributes. This is a comforting thought which we should pause to ponder. Can you possibly conceive of a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing and yet whose power could be employed at a mere whim? During the Hitler regime the Nazis had seemingly unlimited power combined with an intelligence network that was frightening. That knowledge and power were frequently exercised at the expense of justice, truth, and mercy. God is not like that. God’s infinite power and wisdom are always employed in accord with His attribute of grace. Praise God for that!
(10) Grace is both positive and negative in what it gives. Grace is the outpouring of God’s unsolicited and undeserved goodness upon sinful men. This goodness, however, may not always be recognized, for sometimes it comes in the form of pain and suffering. Paul wrote to the Philippian saints:
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake (Philippians 1:29).
The word “granted” is the verb form of the word “grace.” Few would disagree that belief in Christ is a gift of God’s grace, but Paul insists that suffering is every bit as much a gift from God. This is so because trials are sent into the life of the saint in order to perfect his faith and to draw him nearer to the Savior (cf. Hebrews 12:1ff.; James 1:2-4).
Stated another way, God is gracious to men not only in what He provides, but also in what He prohibits. Look at the grace of God in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were told that they could freely eat of every tree of that garden, save one. That was a provision of grace. What an abundance of good things that garden must have contained. But God also forbade them to eat of the fruit of one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now Satan successfully diverted the attention of Adam and Eve from the gracious provision of God to His one prohibition. What they did not realize (and Satan surely did not point out) was that God was not only gracious in the provision of the garden with all of its delights, but also in the prohibition not to eat of the one tree. How painful for Adam and his wife and for mankind were the consequences of partaking of what God prohibited!
My friend, God is good not only in what He gives, but also in what He withholds and what He takes away. While we may not understand the reasons why, if we believe that God is a God of grace we must be able to say like Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
Let me conclude with just a couple of observations and applications of the doctrine of the grace of God, remembering that we have not yet completed our study on this great doctrine.
First of all, I have come to see the doctrine of the grace of God as one of the dominant themes of the Bible. In musical terms, the grace of God is like the melody line of a beautiful song. As a rule, only one note carries the melody, and all of the other notes serve to compliment that note with a harmony. I believe that grace is the dominant note in God’s dealings with man. His justice, His holiness, His omnipotence, and His omniscience are all an integral part of the music of His character and activities, but grace stands apart and above them all.
Is that really the way that you and I view God most of the time? I must confess that it is not so with me. Often times I find myself thinking of God in less complimentary ways. I am surprised when “good things” come into my life, and I know they are from God. And when suffering or trials enter my life, I tend to think that God is somehow punishing me or giving me what I deserve rather than dealing with me according to grace.
There is nothing Satan would rather convince you of than that God’s way is the way of drudgery and the dismal. God, according to Satan, never has a smile on His face, but always a frown. Yet Paul refers to his God, the God of grace, as the One who “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). It is Satan who desires to keep us from enjoying the good things of life:
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude (1 Timothy 4:1-4).
This study of the grace of God has reminded me of the goodness of God in His dealings with mankind in general, and with me in particular. Whatever comes into my life, it has come from the God of all grace, who has purposed to enrich my life by His gift, whether it be in what He gives or what He denies me.
Another thing that has come to mind in this study is the startling realization that it is the grace of God that fallen men most detest. If lost men really thought that God is a harsh and cruel deity who deals severely with all who offend Him, they would cower in His presence, and they would do everything possible to avoid His wrath. Men do not fear God, however; they disdain Him. They interpret His grace as weakness and His delay of judgment as inability to achieve His purposes. Men who are sinners do not want to admit their own guilt and thus do not want to petition God for grace. They will have heaven on their own terms or not at all. Thus lost men will go to hell because they hate grace and will have none of it.
Man does not like to think of God showing grace. “Grace—which means the full and free forgiveness of every sin, without God demanding or expecting anything from the one so forgiven—is a principle so opposed to all man’s thoughts and ways, so far above man, that he dislikes it. His own heart often secretly calls it injustice. He does not deal in this way and he does not like to think of God doing so.”42
My unsaved friend, if you have never realized it before, God is gracious. In His grace He has spoken to men through His Word, informing them that they are sinners and warning them of the wrath that is to come. In His grace God has sent His Son to the cross of Calvary in order to satisfy the requirements of His justice by punishing His Son in their place. If you will but admit your sin and your helpless state and call upon Him for salvation, you will be saved. God’s grace is for sinners like you and like me. He will either deal with you in grace, or you must face the consequences of rejecting His gracious offer of salvation.
36 “Furthermore, the concept of grace is the watershed that divides Roman Catholicism from Protestantism, Calvinism from Arminianism, modern liberalism from conservatism. The Roman Catholic Church holds that grace is mediated through its priests and sacraments, while Protestantism generally does not. The Calvinist feels that he glorifies the grace of God by emphasizing the utter helplessness of man apart from grace, while the Arminian sees the grace of God cooperating with man’s abilities and will. Modern Liberalism gives an exaggerated place to the abilities of man to decide his own fate and to effect his own salvation entirely apart from God’s grace, while conservatism holds that God’s grace is necessary for salvation. Man is evolving, according to Liberalism, into a kind of superman who is coming to the place where he needs no outside help, certainly not the grace of God.” Charles C. Ryrie, The Grace of God (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), pp. 10-11.
37 Many are the theologians who have recognized grace as an attribute of God. Buswell, for example, writes: “The goodness of God in this sense—that is, the grace of God—is the most amazing theme in all the Bible. The most astounding truth ever proclaimed is that God is and remains absolutely just and at the same time He justifies—He makes just and right—the one who, being unjust, unrighteous, defiled, and guilty, puts his faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).
“Oh the goodness of God, the goodness of God! This is the gospel message. This is what the Bible is all about, from the sacrifice of Abel, all through the generations of man’s sin and God’s longsuffering, until the new heavens and the new earth ‘wherein dwelleth righteousness’ (2 Peter 3:13).” J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962 ), I, pp. 69-70.
38 I realize that in Romans 11 the choice made is that of a nation (Israel) rather than an individual. While there are other differences as well, the point here is that election in principle (whether of individuals or nations) is a matter of grace, not works.
39 There is a lively discussion at this point on the subject of limited atonement. I will only say this: I believe the death of Christ made provision for the salvation of all men (cf. 1 Timothy 4:10, 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:2). I believe the death of Christ actually purchased the salvation of only the elect. I believe the death of Christ thereby provides the basis for a universal offer of salvation while recognizing that only some (namely, the elect) will be saved.
Some believe that this creates an inconsistency within the Godhead: “How can Christ die to save all men if God only chose to save some?” I believe God purposed the death of Christ to be broader than just procuring the salvation of the elect, but also in providing payment for all.
The Relationship of Law and Grace,
or Is Your God a Grouch?
J. B. Phillips once wrote an excellent little book entitled, Your God Is Too Small. His thesis, as I remember it, was that we fail to appreciate the greatness of God and that our faith is not limited by God’s inadequacies, but by our failure to comprehend His greatness and power. I think I would like to write a similar book on the subject of the grace of God. The title of my book would be, Your God Is a Grouch. If most Christians are anything like the God they serve, then their God must be a grouch.
I see this false perception of God reflected in most of the movies that have ever been produced about the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Frequently He is characterized as austere and cold. We see Him as another John the Baptist, condemning virtually everything and everyone around Him. We remember Jesus scolding His disciples and lashing out at the money-mongers in the temple. It was not until a recent movie on the life of Christ that anyone ever attempted to portray our Lord as a man who loved people, enjoyed life, smiled at little children, laughed at (and with) His disciples, and frequently had a twinkle in His eye. I think this touches a side of our Lord that some don’t seem to believe exists.
But if our Lord is thought of as austere in the Gospels, the God of the Old Testament can be nothing less than a grouch. After all, didn’t He burden the people of old with an unrealistic and impossible system of Laws and codes? And didn’t He command the Israelites to kill all of the Canaanites? How can we possibly square the grace of God with the giving of the Law? And how is the New Testament saint, who is “not under Law but under grace,” to relate to the Law of the Old Testament?
The relationship of the New Testament believer to the Old Testament Law was perhaps the most pressing problem of the early church. Peter’s desire to keep the Jewish food Laws was so strong that it took a dramatic incident to convince him that these Laws had been set aside. This revelation effectively opened the door to evangelizing the Gentiles (Acts 10:1ff.). Later, when Peter failed to apply God’s instruction to his relationships with certain Gentiles, Paul had to rebuke him publicly (Galatians 2:11ff.). The first major council of the church centered around the issue of the relationship of Gentile converts to the Law of the Old Testament (Acts 15:1ff.). The entire epistle to the Galatians was written because of the heresy taught by the Judaizers that one could be saved only by faith in Christ plus law-keeping.
The relationship of Law and grace is one that has troubled the church over the centuries. Even today it continues to perplex and confuse Christians. Some would go to the extreme of making obedience to the Law a requirement for salvation. At the opposite extreme, others would insist that we are under no obligation to any rules or commands and that we may live as we please. Neither of these positions is acceptable so far as the Bible is concerned, and only by a careful study of the relationship of Old Testament Law to New Testament grace can we find the proper balance for Christian living.
When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai holding in his hands the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, he found the people in a state of anarchy. In just a short time they had become engaged in idolatrous worship and revelry (Exodus 32:15ff.). Moses angrily threw down the stone tablets, shattering them at the foot of the mountain (32:19). Had the Old Testament Law been such a terrible thing, I would have thought that Moses would have used those tablets to beat the Israelites over the head. At least he could have crammed the Law down their throats rather than wasting all that valuable gold.
This act of Moses implies what the Bible elsewhere confirms about the Law, that it was given from the hand of a gracious God. I believe Moses threw down the tablets because he felt the Israelites were unworthy of them. He viewed the Law as a manifestation of God’s grace, and in the light of their sin, he did not intend for them to have it. If the Law were as evil as some think today, what more fitting punishment for the nation Israel than the “burden” of the Law? The Law given at Sinai was not intended to be a burden, however, but a blessing. Allow me to briefly mention a few of the reasons why the Old Testament Law was a blessing and not a burden to the people of God.
(1) It was God’s grace that brought Israel out of Egypt, just as His grace would enable them to possess the promised land. If it were works that would merit the redemption of Israel from their bondage in Egypt, why was the Law not given until after their exodus? To underscore the role of grace in the lives of the people of God the Law was given to the Israelites with this reminder:
… Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself?’ (Exodus 19:4).
“The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
“Know therefore today that it is the Lord your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and He will subdue them before you, so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly, just as the Lord has spoken to you. Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people” (Deuteronomy 9:3-6)
It was God who had redeemed His people. They had done nothing to merit His grace in delivering them from bondage. God had been true to Himself and to His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And so He would fulfill His promise by bringing them safely into the land and driving out the Canaanites.
(2) The Old Testament Law was gracious in that it clearly defined the standards a righteous God set for His people. The Law was an integral part of the covenant between God and the nation Israel. It defined the relationship between God as king and the people as His servants, whom He had redeemed out of bondage in Egypt. As a holy and righteous God He could only bless the Israelites as they lived in conformity to His character. As God put it, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). God could not bless sin and disobedience, and so the Law prescribed the kind of behavior which would be blessed. Blessing and obedience were directly related. Obedience to the Law assured the people of God that they would possess the promised land and drive out the Canaanites. Obedience likewise assured them of intimate fellowship with God and an exalted position among the nations.43
‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:5-6a).
“You shall therefore keep every commandment which I am commanding you today, so that you may be strong and go in and possess the land into which you are about to cross to possess it; so that you may prolong your days on the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give to them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 11:8-9).
(3) The Law was given so that future generations might come to trust and obey the God who had redeemed the Israelites. The faith of the fathers must be passed on to succeeding generations. The Law was given as a means of communicating the basis for this faith:
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. … And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:1-2, 6-7).
“When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; and the LORD brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand”’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-21; cf. also verses 22ff.).
The Law was much more than the Ten Commandments, just as it was far more than the commands and prohibitions of God. The Law was the entire Pentateuch (and frequently more than this), which contained the account of the history of God’s dealings with the nation. It contains the call of Abraham and the working of God in his life and in the lives of his descendants. Since salvation has always been by faith and not by Law-keeping, each new generation had to come to know the God of their fathers in a personal way, by faith. The five books of Moses served the same function for the ancient Israelites as the Gospels do for men today. Saving faith is also a historical faith.
(4) While the Law set a standard of righteousness that was impossible to keep, it also contained a provision for sin. An integral part of the Law of the Old Testament was the sacrificial system. It was God’s gracious means of dealing with the sin which the Law defined:
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “If a person acts unfaithfully and sins unintentionally against the LORD’s holy things, then he shall bring his guilt offering to the LORD: a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation in silver by shekels, in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. And he shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it, and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it shall be forgiven him” (Leviticus 5:14-16).
We know from the New Testament that the sacrificial system was only provisional. It did not remove sin; it merely passed over it for a time (cf. Romans 3:25; Hebrews 10:1-4). Nevertheless, this sacrificial system foreshadowed and prophesied concerning that “Lamb of God” who was to come and remove sins once for all (cf. John 1:29). The salvation which was promised in Genesis 3:15 was said to come through the seed of Abraham (Genesis 12:3), and later it was more specifically promised through the offspring of Judah (Genesis 49:8ff.). This salvation was typified by the “sacrifice of Isaac” (Genesis 22) and by the offering of the passover lamb (Exodus 12).
And so the Old Testament Law was gracious in that it revealed the need for a remedy for sin, provided a temporary solution, and promised a permanent deliverance through faith, not works.
(5) Israel’s apostasy was always accompanied by a neglect of God’s Law, while her revival and restoration were accomplished by a return to the Law of God.
Thus says the LORD, “For three transgressions of Judah and for four I will not revoke its punishment, because they rejected the Law of the LORD and have not kept His statutes; their lies also have led them astray, those after which their fathers walked” (Amos 2:4).
Therefore, the Law is ignored and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore, justice comes out perverted (Habakkuk 1:4).
Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan who read it. … Then the king sent, and they gathered to him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. And the king went up to the house of the LORD and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests and the prophets and all the people, both small and great; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant, which was found in the house of the LORD. And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people entered into the covenant (2 Kings 22:8; 23:1-3; cf. also Nehemiah 8:1ff.).
(6) The Law of God was perceived by those who were spiritual as something holy and righteous and good. While some may look upon the Law as a burden, godly men of old regarded it as a great blessing:
Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy, do not be grieved.” And all the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them (Nehemiah 8:9-12).
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the Law of the LORD, And in His Law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1-2).
The Law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Thy servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward (Psalm 19:7-11).
O how I love Thy Law! It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97).
Even in Old Testament times the purpose of the Law was frequently misunderstood. Men perceived it to be a means of earning merit before God. As the Israelites were about to possess the land under the leadership of Joshua, he urged them to determine whether or not they would follow God rather than the pagan gods of their forefathers:
“Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14 -15).
The people enthusiastically (and naively) announced that they would serve the God of Israel (24:16-18), but Joshua realized that they did not really grasp the implications of this nor of the impossibility of keeping the Law of God apart from divine grace. Therefore, he warned them, saying:
“You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.” And Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the LORD, to serve Him.” And they said, “We are witnesses” (Joshua 24:19-22).
Throughout the history of Israel the tendency of the people was to emphasize religious forms as opposed to the essence of their religion that was the heart of the Law:
For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6).
Repeatedly God sent His prophets to instruct the people concerning the real purpose of the Law. Because of the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites and their resistance to the intent of the Law, the prophets were rejected, persecuted, and put to death (Matthew 23:29-31).
To summarize, the Law as represented in the Old Testament was not grace, but it was gracious. It was never intended to establish a works-oriented system of approaching God. It revealed the righteousness of God and the relationship between the covenant people of Israel and Yahweh, their king. As such, the Law was good, inspiring the worship, praise, and service of those who truly knew God. Many did misinterpret and misuse the Law, but such is the nature of sin—to abuse that which is good and to make it an instrument for evil.
Both in the Old Testament and the New, the term “law” had a wide variety of meanings. We cannot simply speak of “the Law” in the New Testament without first saying that the definition and interpretation of “the law” in the New Testament is probably the single most critical issue. This is what turned the scribes and Pharisees against Jesus. This is what constituted the Judaizers to be heretics. We shall begin by defining the “law” as the scribes and Pharisees viewed it and then move to our Lord’s definition as evidenced by His life and teaching. Finally, we shall look at the “law” through the life and teaching of the apostles.
The “law” according to Pharisaism. During the 400 years of silence between the Old Testament and the coming of Christ, God had been silent, but Judaism had not. The scribes and Pharisees had come to equate righteousness with conformity to a prescribed code of conduct. This “code” was not really the Law of the Old Testament, but it was the traditions of the Pharisees which had been wedded to the Old Testament Law. For example, God’s Law had prescribed that a man should keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8). What had been a simple commandment became a complicated system of rules and regulations:
The Law lays it down that the Sabbath Day is to be kept holy, and that on it no work is to be done. That is a great principle. But these Jewish legalists had a passion for definition. So they asked: What is work? All kinds of things were classified as work. For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work. But next a burden has to be defined. So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen”—and so on endlessly. So they spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a brooch or false hair, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day. These things to them were the essence of religion. Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.44
By the third century A.D., a written compilation of these oral traditions was completed. It was known as the Mishnah and contained 63 tractates on various subjects of the Law. In English it makes a book of about 800 pages.45 Later Judaism set itself to the task of interpreting these interpretations. These commentaries on the Mishnah are known as Talmuds. The Jerusalem Talmud consists of 12 printed volumes; the Babylonian Talmud has 60 volumes.46
On the one hand, the meticulous definition of the Old Testament Law by the Pharisees made the Law almost impossible to keep. It seemed, therefore, to set an even higher standard than the Law as given by God. But all of this “red tape” served to hinder only the masses, for the Pharisees also had devised clever ways of avoiding the Laws which they so scrupulously taught:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold?” (Matthew 23:16-17).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
Consequently, the Jewish leaders not only hated the Lord Jesus, but they despised the masses who followed Him:
“No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he? But this multitude which does not know the Law is accursed” (John 7:48-49).
Because of this incredible legal system, a devout Jew could actually claim to be perfect according to the demands of the Law—the Law, that is, according to the Pharisees. The rich young ruler unashamedly made this claim (Matthew 19:20), and so did the apostle Paul (Philippians 3:4-6), but when the apostle came to faith he then referred to himself as “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
It is absolutely crucial for us to understand this Pharisaical view of the Law, for it sets the background for the entire New Testament. Much of the New Testament is devoted to a correction of this misconception of the Law.
The “Law” according to Jesus. Paul reminds us that Jesus was “born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4). He perfectly fulfilled the Law of God, thus being qualified to die for the sins of the world (1 Peter 2:22). Nevertheless, He was continually accused of being a law-breaker. He was guilty, of course, if the “Law” was that devised by the Pharisees. It was here that Jesus’ view of the Law differed so greatly from His opponents. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps more than anything else, is Jesus’ hermeneutical system for interpreting the Old Testament. The difference between Jesus’ approach to the Law and that of the Pharisees can be summarized by three observations:
(1) Jesus did not view the Law as an unbearable burden which men must merely endure, but He saw it as an evidence of the goodness (grace) of the heavenly Father. For example, the Pharisees looked upon the Sabbath as superior to man. Man could only submit to God’s prohibitions, even though they made life miserable. Thus the Pharisaical Law might prohibit a hungry man from eating on the Sabbath or Jesus from healing one who suffered. The Law, according to Jesus, was intended to be for man’s benefit, and so He could heal a man on the Sabbath without violating the Law. Man was not created for the Sabbath, Jesus insisted, but the Sabbath for the benefit of man (Mark 2:27). The spirit of the Law was more important than the letter, Jesus taught, but this was a point of view no self-respecting legalist could ever accept.
As I think back over the Old Testament, I cannot think of one instance in which a person was condemned for some technical violation of the Law, as specific and particular as it was, In every case I can think of, men were judged by God because their motives and attitudes were evil.47 Jesus points this fact out to the legalists of His day, but they cannot grasp it.
(2) Jesus saw the inward motive of a man to be as important as the outward act. According to Pharisaism a Jew could lust after a woman so long as he did not commit adultery with her. A man could hate his brother, but he could not kill him. Jesus said that the inward thoughts of lust and hate are as evil as the outward acts of adultery and murder (cf. Matthew 5:21ff.). Teaching this view of the Law, Jesus raised the standards of the Law far higher than any man could ever hope to meet. He did not come to do away with the Law, as the Pharisees accused, but to fulfill it. And while the Pharisees proudly claimed to uphold the Law and establish their own righteousness by their works Jesus taught that one would have to demonstrate far greater righteousness than they did to ever enter into the kingdom of God:
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
(3) Jesus taught that the Law would not be put away until the heavens and the earth pass away:
“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).
According to our Lord, there is some sense in which the Law has abiding value, even in the age of grace, for He said that it would not pass away until that time when heaven and earth also pass away.
The “Law” according to the apostles. Frequently the term “Law” is employed in the New Testament with reference to the Old Testament Law, the Law as God gave it and as our Lord interpreted it. This Law included not only the Ten Commandments, but the entire Pentateuch—(the first five books of the Bible) and sometimes even the whole Old Testament. Whenever the apostles speak of God’s Law as given in the Old Testament, they do so with the greatest respect. It is never conceived of in any other way than something good:
Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law (Romans 3:31).
What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. … So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:7-8, 12).
In Romans 7 Paul taught that the Law is not evil, but good. Just as the beginning of this chapter speaks to Christians, I believe that Paul is speaking as a Christian in the later part of the chapter. He is speaking, then, of his relationship as a Christian to the Law of the Old Testament.
While the Law is used by sin to arouse the desires of the flesh (verse 5), it is not sinful. The Law serves to point out sin by defining it; it does not produce sin (verses 7-8). The Law is no more evil for defining sin than an x-ray is evil for identifying a cancerous tumor. Sin uses the Law to get a handle on men, taking advantage of the weakness of the flesh. Sin’s misuse of the Law for evil purposes only shows how sinful sin is (verse 13). Since we cannot overcome sin by our natural resources (the flesh), sin makes use of the Law to overpower us. The problem is not with God’s perfect Law, and not even with our flesh, but with sin that abuses the Law and overpowers our flesh. In his innermost self, his spiritual man, Paul wanted to do what the Law commanded, just as he desired to cease doing what the Law forbade (verses 14-19).
The solution to Paul’s problem (and every Christian’s) is not the abolition of the Law, but the power to overcome sin and to live righteously as the Law demands. So Paul does not tell us that the Law has died to us, but rather that we have died to the Law (cf. verse 4).48 In Christ we have died to the Law in that the penalty for our sins has been paid. The Law can no longer condemn the one who has paid his debt (cf. Romans 8:1). On the other hand, by walking in the Spirit we have the power to fulfill the requirements, the standards of righteousness, which the Law prescribes. In Christ the requirements of the Law are met—negatively by dying in Christ and positively by living in Him and walking by His Spirit.
Paul never conceived of God’s Law as evil. In fact, he continued to live in accordance with much of the Old Testament Law after his conversion. Paul circumcised Timothy in order that his ministry might be enhanced (Acts 16:3). He made vows in Old Testament fashion (Acts 18:18), and he was anxious to observe the feast of Pentecost. Perhaps most significantly, Paul made an effort to convince his fellow Jews that he still kept the Law. When Paul returned to Jerusalem, he knew by prophetic revelation that he was facing great danger (Acts 21:10-14). James and the other elders were well aware of the charge against Paul that he had set aside the Law of Moses and was instructing other Jews to do likewise (21:18-21). Their advice was that Paul publicly worship in accordance with the Law as a rebuttal to the charges against him, and this he did (21:22-26). Observance of the Law in this situation was neither wrong, nor did it cause Paul to “fall from grace.”
The Jerusalem Council, whose meeting is recorded in Acts 15, distinguished between Judaism and Christianity. They concluded that a Gentile did not need to keep the Law in order to be saved. Neither did the council prohibit Jewish Christians from continuing to practice their Jewish heritage. Continuing to practice that which was a part of the Jewish culture was never considered to be putting oneself “under Law.” Thus the circumcision of Timothy, the observance of the feast of Pentecost, and Paul’s actions in Acts 21 were not a surrender to the Jewish legalists, but a concession to the culture of Judaism for the sake of more effective ministry. This also explains how Paul could come to the Gentiles without his Jewish trappings or to the Jews with them (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Concession can be made in matters of culture, and so Timothy was circumcised. Concession cannot be made in the matter of a doctrine so crucial as that of salvation, and thus Paul refused to circumcise Titus (Galatians 2:3-5).
Paul did not hesitate to appeal to the Old Testament Law as a basis for his teaching and commands. In 1 Corinthians 9:8-10 Paul appealed to the Law to prove that the one who ministers has the right to be supported by those to whom he ministers. In chapter 14 of this same epistle Paul underscored the necessity of women keeping quiet in the public meeting of the church (that is, not taking a public leadership role) with the words “as the Law also says” (verse 34). In Romans 13:8-10 Paul stated that the Law is fulfilled by living according to the principle of love.
James, too, had a high regard for the Law of God. He called it “the royal Law” (2:8) and the “Law of Liberty” (1:25; 2:12). While the “Law” to James might have been broader than just the Old Testament Law, I doubt that his expression excludes it. John certainly held a similar view, for he wrote: “And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments” (1 John 2:3).
I have gone to considerable effort to underscore the biblical fact that the Old Testament Law was never viewed as being evil, but only as good. This is as true in the New Testament as it was in the Old. I have not said all that there is to say about the Law yet, but this must be agreed upon first: God is a gracious God, and the giving of the Law in no way contradicts this aspect of His character. Dispensationalists (with whom I still consider myself to be in basic agreement) have all too frequently ignored this truth, and so I have labored long to fix it in our thinking. Now we must go on to look at what it means when Paul says that we are “not under Law, but under grace.”
While the Old Testament Law was gracious (because God is a God of grace), it was never grace. Grace and truth were personified in Jesus Christ, and grace was accomplished on the cross of Calvary, as we have already shown in our last message. The Law of the Old Testament was gracious in that it defined both sin and righteousness, and it demonstrated the need for salvation. It also made a temporary provision for sin and promised that a greater and final salvation would come. The Law was only able to condemn, but never able to save:
For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4).
But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the Law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to49 Christ, that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:23-26).
The Law is good and not evil. Here is a biblical truth, but there is even greater news: If the Old Testament Law was good, New Testament grace is better. That is the point of the book of Hebrews. The author of this great epistle never sought to undermine or question the greatness of the old covenant, only to underscore the superiority of the new covenant and the grace which it brought to man. The angels were good, but the Son is far better (Hebrews 1:3-4). Moses was a mighty man, but Jesus was far greater (3:1ff.). The rest of the Sabbath was wonderful, but grace brings a greater rest (4:1ff.). The high priest of the old order was powerful, but our great high priest has passed through the heavens (4:14ff.). The old covenant was good; the new covenant is much better. That is the point of the New Testament. The new covenant is not enhanced by discrediting the old (as is often done), but by seeing how it overshadows the old.
Perhaps the relationship of the old covenant and its Law to the new covenant and grace can best be grasped by illustration. Engagement is good, but marriage is far better. I have not yet met a newly-engaged couple who were miserable and unhappy. They are so full of joy they can hardly contain themselves. The bride-to-be does everything possible to display her ring and announce her engagement. The groom-to-be proudly introduces his beloved. Yet once this couple is married, they never wish to go back to the former state of engagement. Those of us who are married can testify to this. Why? Because marriage offers freedoms and privileges which engagement does not.
Now engagement is a wonderful institution. I know of very few pastors who would encourage a couple to get married without a sufficient engagement period. It serves to give the couple time to get to know each other better. It enables them to make decisions and plans for their marriage. It even gives them the opportunity of backing out of a bad marriage. Engagement is intended for primarily one reason: preparation. Once these preparations have been completed, however, engagement has fulfilled its task. From then on it is not a blessing, but a burden.
So it is with the Law of the Old Testament. It established a covenant relationship between men and God. It prepared them for the grace to come by defining sin and declaring the universal need for grace. It even gave promise of grace to come and made temporary provision for sin until that time. But once grace came in the person of our Lord Jesus, who would ever wish to go back to that former covenant?
There is a great dispensational truth here. God was gracious in the giving of the Law, for by the old covenant He prepared us for the new. But those who would wish to go back to that old covenant would be choosing the good over the better. More than this, now that grace has come it is evil to ever consider going back to that system which could only promise salvation but not provide it, which could only condemn but not save. Going back is therefore not only foolish, but evil. It disregards the adequate provision of righteousness and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christians must not be under Law, but under grace.
Beyond the dispensational dimension there is a dangerous doctrinal error which is promoted by some and practiced by many others. The term “Law,” as we have seen, can be defined in a variety of ways. “Law” to our Lord held a vastly different meaning than it did to the Pharisees. Frequently when the New Testament writers use the term “Law” (especially without the article “the” in the original text, e.g., Galatians 2:16; 5:18; Romans 6:14-15) they are not speaking of the Old Testament Law, but of Law as a principle. “Law” becomes a system of works whereby men strive to produce a righteousness of their own as opposed to accepting the righteousness of Christ offered by grace. This I believe to be an essential dimension included in the term “Law” when we are told that we are “not under Law, but under grace.”50
Taken in this sense, Law and grace are not two different dispensations, the one good and the other better, but two ways: the way of death and the way of life. Every unsaved man is under Law in that he is seeking to establish a righteousness of his own rather than to accept God’s righteousness through Christ. To attempt to earn righteousness by the keeping of the Old Testament Law or any other set of standards is to reject the principle of grace and the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. This, Paul says, is not just “another gospel,” it is no gospel at all (cf. Galatians 1:6ff.).
The implications of our study are manifold, but I shall only touch on some of the major areas of application.
To view the Old Testament Law as evil is to see it in a way that is inconsistent with both the Old and New Testaments. The Law is not grace, but it was gracious. It defines both righteousness and sin. It provided temporarily for the sins of those who violated its demands. It promised a Savior who would fulfill its demands and permanently remove sin.
The Law has been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and has been superceded by a new and better covenant. Even though the Law was good, we cannot return to it. Since salvation has come in Christ we cannot “turn back the clock” and live as men once did under the old dispensation.
Law as a system of obtaining righteousness by observing a set of rules, whether they be biblical or not, is completely opposed to grace. We cannot earn righteousness, either to be saved, keep saved, or enhance our standing with God as Christians.
Legalism is a misuse of God’s Law. Legalism places emphasis only upon external acts and ignores the motivation and the means employed to accomplish these acts. It does not consider the spirit of the Law, but only the letter. The remedy for legalism is not the abolition of any and all rules or commands, for the New Testament is full of imperatives and commands, but obedience that stems from gratitude and which is empowered by grace. Grace was never intended to do away with the Law altogether, but to overcome sin and to fulfill the requirements of the Law (Romans 8:4).
The Law of the Old Testament still has great value for the New Testament Christian. It continues to serve as a standard of righteousness. It provides us with both warning and instruction which is profitable in our Christian experience:
Now these things happened to them as an examples, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:11).
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Scripture which Paul refers to in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is first and foremost that contained in the Old Testament. If Paul says that it is profitable, then we had better take heed.
One of the most valuable functions of the Old Testament is that it provides us with principles which relate to our lives. It is true that some things have been set aside, but even here there is much to learn in principle. The principle of faith is illustrated in the lives of the Old Testament saints (cf. Hebrews 11). When Abraham listened to his wife Sarah and had a child by Hagar, we can learn that taking action in unbelief is sin and has far-reaching consequences (cf. Genesis 16). The command not to muzzle the ox while it was threshing (Deuteronomy 25:4) was intended to teach us that a laborer should not be deprived of his wages (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:8ff.). In fact, Paul tells us that the real point of that command had little to do with the ox, but with the principle behind it, for he asks, “God is not concerned with oxen, is He?” (1 Corinthians 9:9). While we need to consult the New Testament to see if the Old Testament Law has been set aside or modified (e.g., the concept of the priesthood—a few, to all Christians), most of the teaching of the Old Testament finds ready application in the life of the Christian.
I fear that in our reaction to the evils of legalism many of us have tended toward the opposite extreme—that of resisting any absolutes or commands, as though this were inconsistent with Christian liberty. James’ “Law of liberty” (2:12) reminds us that liberty is not the absence of rules, but the ability to keep them, for the glory of God and our good. Let us end by taking note of Peter’s warning:
Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God (1 Peter 2:16).
43 This may appear to be inconsistent with what has been said above. If the exodus and the possession of the land of Canaan were a work of God’s grace, then how can they also be conditioned by Israel’s obedience to the Law? The answer is the same as it would be to the question, “How can salvation be totally a matter of God’s grace and yet conditioned upon man’s acceptance?” Even man’s acceptance is ultimately the work of grace (Acts 13:48; 16:14; Philippians 1:29). Grace does not necessitate human inactivity or passivity, only that the activity of grace is achieved by divine power.
47 Uzzah, for example, was not slain just because he touched the ark of God, while this was forbidden, but because of his irreverence which occasioned this act (cf. 2 Samuel 6:7). The sacrifices of the Israelites were not as important to God as the heart attitude of loyalty to God (Hosea 6:6).
48 I am aware of Colossians 2:14, but here it is not the Law which is nailed to the cross, but only the “certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us.” It is thus not the Law, as such, which is nailed to the cross, but only the condemnation which the Law pronounces on our sin.
49 The words “to lead us to” in verse 24, as has been frequently pointed out, are supplied by the translators. It is probably better to translate simply “until,” and thus reading, “Therefore the Law has become our tutor until Christ, that we may be justified by faith.”
50 Murray states: “The assumption on which this argument is based is that ‘under the law’ refers to the Mosaic or Old Testament economy. It is true that sometimes the expression has that signification (cf. Gal. 3:23-4:4). But it is a fallacy that has done prejudice to the interpretation of the Roman epistle at the hands of some of its ablest expositors to suppose that ‘under law’ has this restricted scope.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 1, p. xix.
Murray later has an excellent description of the inadequacies of the Old Testament Law: “(1) Law commands and demands. (2) Law pronounces approval and blessing upon conformity to its demands (cf. 7:10, Gal. 3:12). (3) Law pronounces condemnation upon every infraction of its demand (cf. Gal. 3:10). (4) Law exposes and convicts of sin (cf. 7:7, 14; Heb. 4:12). (5) Law excites and incites sin to more aggravated transgression (cf. 7:8,9,11,13). What Law cannot do is implicit in these limits of its potency. (1) Law can do nothing to justify the person who has violated it. (2) Law can do nothing to relieve the bondage of sin; it accentuates and confirms that bondage.” Ibid., p. 229.
Grace in the Christian’s Daily Walk
Happiness to some is seeing the bad guy get what he deserves. Some time ago while I was in college, my partner Ted and I were washing the dormitory windows. Dan, the dorm’s persistent practical joker, decided to shake the ladder Ted was standing on. Ted responded by wringing out his sponge on Dan’s head, and that’s when all the trouble really started. From there it went from bad to worse, eventually flooding the hall and drenching Ted. Ted went to change his clothes and refill his bucket. I minded my own business (for once) and stayed on my ladder washing windows.
A few minutes later Ted re-appeared with dry clothes and a full pail. Just about this time, George, the head resident, came into the room where I was washing the windows to see what all the commotion was about. I was on the outside of the window, and George was on the inside peering out and talking to Dan on the ground two stories below. Suddenly Ted’s pail protruded from the window beside us, and the plunging water swamped Dan, who stood sputtering below. Now Ted didn’t know that George, the head resident, was in the room beside the window from which he drenched Dan. And George was unaware of Ted’s intentions until it was all over. All George could do was to try to catch the culprit. All I could do was to give some advice to Ted: “Run, Ted!” It was to no avail. Ted ran into George’s waiting arms. George looked Ted squarely in the eye and said, “Man, Ted, you got him dead center!” With that George turned around and went back to his room. Even old George enjoyed seeing a fellow get what he deserved.
This basic desire to see justice meted out is what keeps us glued to our television sets until the very end of the program. We want to see the villain get what he (or she) has been asking for. I think that is why so many of us like to watch “Little House on the Prairie”—we can’t wait to see that snooty Mrs. Olson humiliated. And that woman is such a great actor that we delight in her downfall.
If happiness is seeing the wicked come to justice, then misery is watching people get things they don’t deserve. We can all identify with the vexation of the psalmist, who agonizes over the prosperity of the wicked (cf. Psalm 37, 73). It doesn’t seem right that a man should be rewarded for doing evil. For this reason some find it very difficult to rejoice when a sinner becomes the recipient of the grace of God. The scribes and Pharisees were angry that Jesus spent His time with the unworthy (Mark 2:16). The “unprodigal” son of Luke 15 was angered by the grace of his father toward the “prodigal” son, who had acted so foolishly. The laborers who worked hard all day for an agreed wage were angry with the master who paid those who worked fewer hours the same wage (Matthew 20:1-16).
If it is difficult for us as sinners to accept the grace of God in our lives (and it is), it may be even more difficult for us to accept the grace of God in the life of another, especially when we know that person to be undeserving. Have you ever had the experience of struggling over the success of a classmate when they have become more successful or prominent than you? Have you ever said to yourself, “Why should he have succeeded? He only got C’s in class.” Grace is hard to receive, and it may even be harder to accept when others are its recipients.
Humanly speaking, there is one thing harder to accept than grace being given to one whom we don’t really like. The most difficult thing of all is for us to give grace to one we know to be undeserving, when they have been spiteful to us and grace is at our expense. And yet the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments has commanded us to be gracious to others.
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him” (Exodus 23:4-5; cf. also Proverbs 25:21-22).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).
Until now we have been speaking of the grace of God as it was demonstrated in Jesus Christ, providing a just salvation by His Son, according to His choice, and without any merit on our part. Having spoken of God’s grace to His saints we must now come to grips with one of the practical realities of the doctrine of grace: the demonstration of God’s grace through His saints. Our final lesson on the grace of God will deal with the grace of God demonstrated in the daily lives of the saints.
The most commonly used method of motivation is either fear or guilt. “If you don’t do such and such,” we tell our children, “I’ll spank you.” That’s fear. “If you don’t teach this Sunday school class, your priorities are all messed up.” That’s guilt. Fear and guilt can be proper motives for the Christian, but grace is a far better motive for serving God and others. I notice this in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians as he is encouraging their diligence to carry through in their commitment to contribute financially to the needs of the saints:
I am not speaking this as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:8-9).
How easy it would have been for Paul as an apostle to simply order the saints to “cough up” and complete the giving they had previously committed to do. Perhaps they had lost some of their initial enthusiasm to give, especially if their own budgets were feeling the pinch. Instead, Paul encouraged them to give, reminding them of the grace of God in providing salvation at so great a cost to Him. Neither fear nor guilt, but only grace could motivate the kind of giving which ministered to others and brought glory to God.
Grace is a wonderful motivation for Christian service. It appeals to our highest aspirations and emotions. Paul spent the first eleven chapters of his epistle to the Romans expounding the grace of God. Not until chapter twelve did he turn to the matter of our Christian obligations. And when he finally did so he began with a reminder that it is grace that should prompt the saints to a life of sacrificial service:
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship (Romans 12:1).
As we can see in this verse, grace is not only the motivation for service, but it is also the motivation for worship. Grace in the Bible is not only used of the gracious acts of God toward men, but of the grateful response of thanksgiving and praise from men toward God. That is why we often call mealtime prayers “grace.” The writer to the Hebrews stressed the need for grateful thanksgiving when he wrote:
Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude [literally, “let us have grace”], by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28).
Worship and grace are virtually inseparable. Repeatedly in the Psalms the writer would praise God for His faithfulness and mercy. Perhaps this same kind of response is implied in 1 Corinthians 14:26:
What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, …
If not, it is clearly stated in Colossians 3:16-17:
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you; with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness [literally, “grace”] in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
Worship and service are always to be done with gratitude, and gratitude is always an appropriate response to grace.
I have always been troubled by the way some people approach the Lord’s Supper (or communion service), for it is often inconsistent with the doctrine of grace. They fail to understand what is so clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 11:27:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.
What the New American Standard Version has translated “in an unworthy manner,” the King James Version has rendered “unworthily.” Both translations stress the fact that the word employed is an adverb, not an adjective. In spite of this, countless Christians warn those about to partake of the bread and the cup that they should not partake of these if they are in an unworthy condition. As a result, communion often begins with a kind of introspective soul-searching, as if to rid ourselves of the sins which make us unfit to partake.
Now let me ask you, is that what Paul has told us to do? No! The manner in which the Corinthian Christians partook of the elements was unworthy of the body and blood of our Lord. Some were drunk and unruly, not waiting for the rest to arrive (1 Corinthians 11:21, 33). How could such a drunken act ever be honoring to our Lord? No wonder these Christians were disciplined for their conduct (verse 30).
But if the death of our Lord on the cross of Calvary was a work of grace, then how could any Christian ever suppose that he could possibly come to the point of being worthy of the Lord’s table? That is the point of it all. We are not worthy. He alone is worthy, and He has given Himself for lost sinners. Let us never come to the Lord’s table apart from remembering that it is a reminder of grace, and men are never worthy of God’s grace. We worship at the Lord’s table because of the gratitude and praise which grace occasions.
Grace also motivates prayer. One of the great hindrances to my prayer life is the feeling of unworthiness. When I am particularly aware of sin in my life, I hesitate to go to the Lord because I know that while He is holy, I am not. The writer to the Hebrews says that this thinking fails to grasp grace as the basis for prayer:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence, to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Do we struggle with the pull of sin? Our Lord has partaken of human frailty, and while He did not succumb to temptation, He is sympathetic with our temptations. While we have failed, He did not. Consequently, we may come to Him as One who is both merciful and mighty. In His might He gives the grace to overcome sin, and in His mercy He gives forgiveness. Since grace is not overcome by sin, but sin by grace, we can come to Him with confidence in prayer. What better place for the sinner to come than to the “throne of grace”?
Grace has motivated Christians to pray throughout the ages. It was the grace of God which encouraged Nehemiah to appeal to God on behalf of the wayward people of Israel:
“But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly; they became stubborn and would not listen to Thy commandments. And they refused to listen, and did not remember Thy wondrous deeds which Thou hadst performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But Thou art a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness; and Thou didst not forsake them” (Nehemiah 9:16-17).
The record of Daniel’s moving prayer reveals that he had a firm grasp of God’s grace. His petition is a request that God will continue to act in grace toward Israel:
“And now, O LORD our God, who hast brought Thy people out of the Land of Egypt with a mighty hand and hast made a name for Thyself, as it is this day—we have sinned, we have been wicked. O Lord, in accordance with all Thy righteous acts, let now Thine anger and Thy wrath turn away from Thy city Jerusalem, Thy holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Thy people have become a reproach to all those around us. So now, our God, listen to the prayer of Thy servant and to his supplications, and for Thy sake, O Lord, let Thy face shine on Thy desolate sanctuary. O my God, incline Thine ear and hear! Open Thine eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Thy name; for we are not presenting our supplications before Thee on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Thy great compassion” (Daniel 9:15-18).
What is particularly interesting about Daniel’s prayer is what he doesn’t say. In 9:2 we are told that Daniel had read in Jeremiah’s prophecy that the end of Israel’s captivity was near, and so also the time of her return to Palestine. Since this return was a part of God’s revealed plan, Daniel could have approached God on the basis of His promise and held God to His word. Daniel could have claimed this promise of God, but instead he chose to cling to the grace of God and appeal to Him as a God of mercy and grace.
How different are the prayers of the unrighteous, who know not the grace of God:
“The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get”’ (Luke 18:11-12).
Only those who know the grace of God have the confidence that they can petition a God who will hear and answer because of His mercy and compassion.
And so the grace of God serves to motivate the saint to serve, to worship, and to pray.
What grace encourages, grace also empowers. Grace inspires the desire to serve God, but desire alone is not sufficient (cf. Romans 7:14ff.). Grace also enables us to do those things that we want to do to please God.
Every Christian knows that it is by grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8). What some Christians are not aware of is that it is also by God’s grace that we stand. “Grace is greater than all my sin,” the song writer has observed, and so it is. Grace not only overcomes sin to save us, but it keeps us secure in that salvation.
Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1-2).
The same grace that saves also sanctifies:
Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God (Acts 13:43).
“And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32f).
The sanctification of the Christian is a growth in grace:
Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited (Hebrews 13:9).
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18a).
Grace also provides the means for Christian service. Serving grace has been granted to all who believe:
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift (Ephesians 4:7).
We will not be surprised, then, to learn that the term employed for spiritual gifts is the Greek word charisma, a derivative of the Greek term for grace, charis:
And since we have gifts [charismata] that differ according to the grace [charis] given to us, let each exercise them accordingly … (Romans 12:6a).
As each one has received a special gift [charisma], employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace [charitos] of God (1 Peter 4:10).
Christian service is not a matter of self-effort, but of divine enablement. Spiritual ministry brings about spiritual results. Anyone can teach, but only Spirit-empowered teaching transforms lives. Anyone can tell another about salvation in Christ, but only the Spirit of God can take that message, impress it upon the heart, convict of sin, and bring about spiritual life. Christian service is a ministry of grace:
For our proud confidence is this, the testimony of our conscience that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you (2 Corinthians 1:12).
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed (2 Corinthians 9:8).
As we minister by the grace of God we are caused to be humbled by the fact that any results are to the glory of the God who works in us through grace. Also, we are stimulated to greater diligence because He is faithful:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).
And for this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
In times of special need greater grace is available to the saint (cf. James 4:6). This “greater grace” is particularly needed in times of suffering and tribulation. Comfort and hope in times of testing are said to be the result of grace:
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).
When Paul suffered his “thorn in the flesh” he appealed to God to remove it, but God’s reply was that His grace would be sufficient for him to endure it:
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ my dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
The grace of God is appropriated to those in weakness and inability, not to those who are strong.
Peter, likewise, did not promise the removal of suffering and persecution, but he did assure his readers of sufficient grace to endure:
And after you have suffered for a little, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you (1 Peter 5:10).
While grace and truth were personified in our Lord Jesus Christ, grace is also to be manifested in the lives of the saints. He has saved us “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Ephesians 1:6). As a result we can see that grace is a guiding principle for the Christian’s conduct in the world.
Early in the book of Acts the church was born as the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost. In the introduction to the book of Acts, Luke implied that what “Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1) the Holy Spirit continued to do through the church (1:2ff.). In Acts 4 Luke reported that “abundant grace was upon them all” (4:33). The first example which Luke chose to illustrate this grace was the generosity of the saints in responding to the financial needs of others. Barnabas was cited as a specific example of this grace (4:36-37), while Ananias and Sapphira provided a contrast to it (5:1-6). Nowhere is the grace of God more evident than in the way people use the financial and material resources God has given them. When God gets hold of our wallet, brother, that’s grace!
As an encouragement to the Corinthian saints, Paul wrote of the generosity of the Macedonians, who willingly gave out of their poverty (2 Corinthians 8:1ff.). Three times in verses 1-7 Paul referred to their giving as a work of grace (8:1,6,7). Their giving would demonstrate the grace of God to the needy and would bring about praise to God:
Because of the proof given by this ministry they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all, while they also, by prayer on your behalf, yearn for you because of the surpassing grace of God in you (2 Corinthians 9:13-14).
God’s grace is also demonstrated in the life of the Christian through the words that he utters:
Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29).
Our words have tremendous power to heal or to hurt, to encourage or to exasperate. In Ephesians 4 Paul teaches that falsehood cannot edify. He says that we once used our tongues to lie, but this cannot continue (Ephesians 4:25). Some people think they are being gracious by telling an untruth, or at least by failing to say anything and thereby leaving a false impression. It is not gracious to see a brother or sister persisting in sin and yet to remain silent:
Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (Proverbs 27:6).
While it is always wrong to lie or deceive, telling what is truth is not necessarily going to demonstrate grace. The truth told in the wrong way can be just as damaging as a lie. In our day and time, honesty has become a virtue, and “letting it all hang out” has become the way of the world. Often times this is just an excuse for venting our feelings of bitterness, anger, and hostility. Earlier in Ephesians 4 Paul has told us to speak the truth in love (4:15). In Philippians truth is not the only standard for what we contemplate:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things (Philippians 4:8).
The book of Proverbs has much to say about speaking in such a way as to benefit the hearer:
The lips of the righteous bring forth what is acceptable, But the mouth of the wicked, what is perverted (10:32).
He who despises his neighbor lacks sense, But a man of understanding keeps silent. He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, But he who is trustworthy conceals a matter (11:12-13).
The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, But the mouth of fools spouts folly (15:2).
The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, And adds persuasiveness to his lips. Pleasant words are a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (16:23-24).
Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear (25:11-12).
Speech that is gracious is first true, then timely, and finally tactful. To be truly gracious our speech must focus upon the One who is full of grace and truth and upon the good news of the gospel, which is the message of God’s grace to men:
Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person (Colossians 4:5-6).
While Paul’s words above apply to every conversation, they seem to be specifically aimed at our conversation with those outside the household of faith. We must be gracious in our conversation, tactfully whetting the appetite of those who are being drawn toward spiritual things.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity to manifest the grace of God is in granting forgiveness to those who sin against us. In the passage we have cited previously (Matthew 5:43-45) our Lord told His listeners that the standard of the world with regard to those who sin against them is too low. The world says we are to love our friends and hate our enemies. If we are to be like our heavenly Father, Jesus said, we must demonstrate grace to those who sin against us. The “common grace” of God is seen in His provision of the sun and the rain. These He gives to the good and the evil alike. If we are to be God-like, that is, if we are to be gracious as God is, then we must be kind to our enemies as well as to our friends.
Did you ever stop to realize that grace can only be shown where sin has occurred? We can only be gracious to others when they have sinned against us. That is necessary by virtue of the definition of grace. Grace is not only undeserved, but it is the opposite of what is deserved. Justice is served when the evildoer is punished. Grace is granted when the evildoer is forgiven at the expense of the victim. If we are to show grace to others, the only opportunity we have to do so is when they sin against us. If this is true, then grace begins where most of us want to stop.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).
Romans 12 is a wonderful exposition on the expression of grace in the life of the Christian. Chapters 1-11 of the epistle have defined the grace of God. Now in chapter 12 Paul exhorts us to demonstrate grace. Verses 1 and 2 use God’s grace (“the mercies of God,” chapters 1-11) as the motive for our service. Verses 3 through 8 speak of spiritual gifts (graces) as the means of our service. Verses 9 through 21 describe the manifestation of grace in the Christian’s life, reaching its epitome in our gracious response to those who sin against us.
Grace is never overcome by sin. “Where sin increased,” Paul wrote, “grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:21). When others sin against us, grace should abound in us. Grace should never be overcome by sin, but grace should overcome sin. Thus in Romans 12 we see grace as the motive, the means, and the manifestation of God in our service to Him.
As I now see it, grace is not only the keynote of God’s character, but it should also be the dominant note of our lives as well. Grace is the principle which should motivate, empower, and regulate our conduct in the world.
As I look through the epistles of the apostle Paul I am struck by the fact that grace is one of the first words from the pen of the apostle, just as it is usually one of the last. Grace is the alpha and omega of Paul’s letters. In Romans 1 Paul wrote, “ … Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7). In the final chapter of this great epistle Paul concluded, “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (16:20). Now this was not the accepted way to introduce and conclude a letter in Paul’s day, and yet nearly every epistle of his is similar in this regard. Paul uses the term “grace” so freely simply because it is such a vital part of the Christian’s walk. “It is grace that taught my heart to fear,” as the hymnist has written, just as it is grace that “will lead me home.”
May I suggest that no principle would so radically transform your marriage than the principle of grace. Rather than negotiate and barter in marriage, suppose that you make the commitment to live according to the principle of grace. When a harsh or critical word is spoken, respond with grace rather than to make a defense or to retaliate. Rather than to wait for your mate to earn your favor, give it unearned and unsolicited, just as God has done for you. Let this same principle apply in your relationships with your friends, your neighbors, your fellow workers, and especially your enemies.
I must tell you that there is no way that you can demonstrate God’s grace until you have first of all experienced it in your life. You must acknowledge that you are a sinner, deserving of God’s wrath rather than His grace. You must believe that grace has been given only in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. You must understand that grace was accomplished only as justice was satisfied by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary where He bore the penalty for your sins and mine. To experience God’s grace you must receive His righteousness and accept the salvation which He offers by trusting in His Son.
While the true Christian has experienced the grace of God in salvation, he or she cannot produce grace by will power or good intentions. Grace comes only from God. The grace which you and I are to show others is the grace which God gives to us and through us. The “means of grace” that the Bible talks about are His Word (“the word of His grace,” Acts 20:32), His Spirit (“the Spirit of grace,” Hebrews 10:29), prayer made to the “throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16), and the grace that is given to the saints which enables them to build up another (Ephesians 4:7; 1 Peter 4:10).
May we find the grace of God sufficient for our every need, and may others see the grace of God through us “to the praise of the glory of His grace.”