Thursday, December 30, 2010

Faith Accounted for Righteousness (Romans 4:1-5)

There is an ongoing debate among religious people concerning the conditional nature of salvation. Some argue that "works" are not essential for salvation while others argue that "works" ARE essential for salvation. At the center of this debate is Romans 4, a chapter in which the apostle Paul tackles this controvery in the most eloquent way!

Let's read verses 1-5 of this chapter as we begin this important discussion: "What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scipture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness."

It is clear upon reading this passage that Paul, by inspiration, is emphasizing faith and grace over "works." Works lead to boasting and ultimately run counter to the very grace of God. The apostle says in verse 5 that those who believe are truly righteous, NOT those who "work." At first glance, this section of scripture seems to coincide with the popular doctrine of "faith only" but let's take a closer look.

The main question is: what are works?

Most people assume that the term works refers to anything that we do including our acts of obedience to God. Thus it is posited that we do not have to obey God to be saved because that would be "earning salvation by works." Any and ALL outward acts are said to be works...

...but this is absolutely false.

In the New Testament, God distinguishes between works of obedience and works of merit. This is evident by the fact that obedience is spoken of positively while meritorious works are condemned and shunned.

Jesus says in John 14:15, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." In keeping His commandments, are we earning His love? Not at all. Obedience is a proper and necessary expression of our love for Christ. Without obedience, we cannot rightly say that we love Him.

Paul says regarding baptism in Romans 6:17, "But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered." True obedience is motivated by the heart; it is not merely outward. And according to Paul, obedience is what delivers us from the bondage of sin. Again, obedience is spoken of positively.

Hebrews 5:9 says, "And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him." A similar point is made by Peter in 1 Peter 1:22, "Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth..." We must obey to be saved.

You see, works of obedience are spoken of positively in the New Testament. And more to the point, true obedience is not coupled with arrogance or a "give me what I've earned" attitude. TRUE biblical obedience is motivated by the heart and is coupled with faith. It is obedience that James is speaking of in the second chapter of his epistle when he says "faith without works is dead." We cannot be saved by a dead faith! True faith is obedient faith.

AT THE SAME TIME, the New Testament condemns meritorious works. We have already seen this in Romans 4. But notice also Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should BOAST." While obedience is spoken of positively, these works in Ephesians 2 are spoken of negatively. Why is that? Because Paul is not speaking here of works of obedience. These works are what I call "meritorious works," works that cause us to boast before God.

Also notice Titus 3:4-7 which says, "But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life." The works of righteousness are not works of obedience. Again, consider the context. In verse 3, Paul is speaking of the condition of the world when Jesus came to die for our sins. God didn't send Jesus to a deserving world, but to an undeserving world. Mankind had done nothing to earn the love of God; we were as unloveable as we could be. It was an act of kindness and mercy. That's the point here. In no way is God discouraging or slamming obedience.

Do you get what I'm trying to say?

There's a difference between obeying God's commands and trying to earn salvation. It's really all about our attitude. Am I humbly doing what God has commanded me to do, or am I arrogantly demanding that God give me something that I think I deserve (when in fact, I don't deserve it).

We have to understand this distinction if we're going to rightly interpret Romans 4. Paul is contrasting a "system of works" and a "system of grace," an attitude of faithful obedience and an attitude of arrogantly demanding salvation. The Jews, according to Romans 3:27 boasted in their works; they felt superior and viewed salvation as their right, while viewing the Gentiles as unworthy and undeserving. Paul is demolishing that mindset. He's telling these arrogant Jews that if salvation can be earned, then God's grace is cheapened and in fact rejected. Yes, we must obey God, just as Abraham had to submit to the commandment of circumcision (Gen. 17), but we better not think that God OWES us because of our obedience.

Jesus put it best when He said, "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'we are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Luke 17:10). God sent His Son to die for our sins! Why? Because He loves us and wants us to be with Him in heaven. But God's not going to give the gift of salvation to everyone. Just as He expected Adam and Eve to abstain from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so also does He expect us to obey His commands today. We must come to Him. We must believe. We must obey. Not because salvation can be earned, but because God tells us to obey.

It's that simple.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Basic Plea (Part II)

In yesterday's article, I talked about some of the differences between biblical Christianity and what I call "modern Christianity." Although the average religious person never stops to think about the aforementioned distinction, Christendom today is the result of 1,800 years of apostasy; we see in recent history the gradual transformation of the church from what God created it to be to what MEN have turned it into.

When we read the New Testament, we don't read of Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans or any of the other modern-day denominations for that matter. We simply read about churches that were all the same because they adhered to the same standard: the word of God. Indeed, the word of God (i.e. the New Testament) is the means of unity; it's when men leave the common standard that division occurs. GOD DEMANDS UNITY OF HIS PEOPLE (Jn. 17:20-21).

The question today is: how is unity achieved? And what do we do about all of the doctrinal differences that exist today? Yes, the Bible ought to be our common standard, and yes, in theory it ought to produce sameness, but isn't that easier said than done? Should we therefore abandon all hope of New Testament Christianity, or is there something that can be done?

In the system of biblical Christianity, there is no central headquarters that governs all the local churches, issuing forth doctrine and law. In the New Testament, churches were self-governing. We see this fact in places like Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2 where the elders were simply told to shepherd their own particular flock. So I cannot tell you what to believe neither can my church (or any church for that matter) tell your church what to believe, how to worship, what to do, etc. So unity is not forced, it is not imposed, it is not delegated by a group of men somewhere.

In the New Testament, various local churches are identical to one another because they are following the same rulebook. At the same time, it is inferred that we must all examine the word of God for ourselves to determine what it means. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "If anyone things himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord" (1 Cor. 14:37). We are all creatures of free-will. We must read and examine the Bible for ourselves. But Paul infers here that spiritually-minded people WILL obey the inspired scriptures and thus be unified. Ephesians 3:1-4 says, "For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles--if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already), by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ." Later, in Ephesians 5:17, Paul writes, "Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is."

You see, we do not need a church headquarters or a creed-book to bind us together. All we need is the Bible. The Bible is not some overly-complicated divine discertation; there is no footnote on the page before Genesis saying "for scholars' eyes only" or "only those with a seminary degree can understand this book." No, the Bible can be understood by ALL, and I would suggest to you that we can and MUST all understand it the same.

"But Casey, it's IMPOSSIBLE for all of us to understand the Bible the same!" Really? Is this not an attack on God's power? Do you really think that God gave us a book that is TOO hard to understand...nay, impossible to understand? That would be awfully unfair considering it's our standard of judgment (Jn. 12:48; 2 Jn. 9). We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and we will be judged based upon our obedience or lack thereof to THIS BOOK...and yet it's too hard to understand...really?

Sure, unity is hard, but not impossible. Understanding the Bible alike is...challenging, but it is absolutely possible. We all must have humility, and there must be in each one of us an unwavering determination and zeal to believe and do JUST what the Bible says. We must never back down from the truth. We must STRIVE to grow daily in our knowledge of God's word.

The problem is that, today, no one is willing to take a stand. Truth is relative. Believe what you want to believe, worship the way you want to worship, join the church of your choice. After all, we're all going to heaven anyways, right? With this kind of attitude, it is no wonder why denominationalism and division are tolerated. Please understand, dear reader, that in the Bible such an attitude was repulsive and in fact, condemned...

Jesus told the apostles to "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" in Matthew 16:6. Leaven here is doctrine (vs. 12). So He was really telling them to beware of the false teachings of the Jewish leaders!

Back a chapter, in Matthew 15:8-9, Jesus made the point that the "doctrines and commandments" of men lead to vain, or unacceptable worship. Inferred in this passage is the fact that God's word promotes ONE KIND of worship; it's when we abandon this common standard that differences arise and vain worship ensues.

Acts 15:1-2 is a wonderful case-in-point: "And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, 'unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders', about this question." When the Judaizing teachers came to Antioch teaching error, what did Paul and Barnabas to? Did they just accept it? No! A different doctrine was taught...a doctrine that was not from God...and so they refused to accept it. In fact, they argued and debated with these false teachers! Such a response would be condemned by the denominational world today as "harsh" and "judgmental."

Romans 16:17 says, "Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them." When someone teaches a different doctrine, we're not to accept or condone that doctrine.

Paul writes in Galatians 1:6-9 that we're to reject any gospel that is different than the one taught in the inspired scriptures. Let's make this personal. The Calvinist says that Jesus only died for a select few while the non-Calvinist says that Jesus died for ALL! These are two completely different gospels. They cannot both be right. The one that is wrong (the Calvinist's gospel) must be rejected as FALSE.

So many other passages could be considered. Read 2 John 9 and Revelation 2 and you'll see that God expects as individuals to not only stick to the scriptures, but to reject those who abandon this common standard. When error is taught, we are to take a stand.

Unity IS possible if we lay aside all of our traditions and manmade creeds and denominational affiliations and get back to the Bible. We must resolve within ourselves to be the Christians that GOD wants us to be rather than the Christians that WE want to be; to be a part of GOD's church as HE designed it, rather than MAN's church as MAN designed it. Sure, it'll be hard. Yeah, we'll still have some differences that we'll have to work on, but if we are willing to study and follow just the New Testament, then we'll be at least moving in the right direction; we'll be well on our way to biblical Christianity.

One last thought, and I'll step down from my soap-box. We cannot accept that which is wrong. You may be thinking, "Casey, I like what you're saying; I agree that denominationalism is wrong" and then continue to participate in it. No, you can't change the world, and no, we can't topple denominationalism in one day, but we CAN change ourselves.

Are you willing?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Basic Plea

There are so many spiritual issues that could be chronicled and debated, from Calvinism to Premillennialism, from Catholicism to Pentecostalism, from the works of the church to the organization of the church, and so on.

But these are just symptoms of a greater problem.

I can talk to a Calvinist about the five tenets of Calvinism, and there are benefits in having that debate, but in the end, there is still a fundamental separation between myself and the ex-Calvinist (assuming that he was persuaded by the truth). I can talk to a Catholic about the errors of the papacy and the veneration of Mary, but again, when it's all said and done, we have only settled one or two issues when there are dozens, perhaps hundreds that divide us.

When I talk to people, I am certainly willing to discuss these issues, but if I can swing it, I always try to redirect the conversation to the fundamental problem that divides all of modern Christendom: seeing the difference between biblical Christianity and what Christianity has become after 1,800 years of gradual evolution and apostasy.

Think about it. I mean, really think about it. Does the divisiveness of modern Christianity compare to the Christianity we read about in the New Testament? In other words, when you read the New Testament, do you find Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Episcopals, Lutherans, Mormons, etc? Did Peter establish a First Baptist Church in Joppa and was Paul busy establishing Lutheran churches throughout Asia Minor? Do you find a multitude of different denominations in the Bible that were sanctioned by the Holy Spirit?

The answer is obvious to anyone who honestly assesses the first century world! There were no denominations. There was no complex, sectarian system resulting from hundreds of different doctrines and human creeds. Sure, there were problems among the first century churches; yes, there were some who taught different doctrines and at times we see a denominational mindset, but overall, we see unity...or at least the DEMAND of unity.

Let's consider the churches of the first century...

Peter the apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, preached the first gospel message in Acts 2. As a result of his efforts, three thousand individuals were baptized (Ac. 2:37-41). These Christians in Jerusalem were unified. Their means of unity? The "apostles' doctrine" (vs. 42)!

In Acts 8, Philip took the gospel to Samaria. The inspired text says that he "preached Christ" to the people of Samaria. As a result, people believed and were baptized (vs. 12-13). These new disciples formed the church in Samaria (Ac. 9:31).

The same thing is seen in Acts 11. Christians were scattered, "preaching the word" as they traveled abroad (vs. 19). In Antioch, the message was the same; they were "preaching the Lord Jesus" (vs. 20). As a result of their efforts, "a great number believed and turned to the Lord" (vs. 21). The new converts in Antioch formed the local church in Antioch (vs. 26).

This is what we find throughout the book of Acts. When the GOSPEL was preached in a given city or region, the individuals that OBEYED THE GOSPEL banded together, forming the CHURCH in that area. In Romans 16:16, Paul speaks of "churches of Christ." In writing to the Corinthian brethren, he referred to them as the "church of God" (1 Cor. 1:2). The terms "church of Christ" and "church of God" are not names of different denominations; rather, they both emphasize the fact that the local church is owned by Jesus Christ who is God (Ac. 20:28, it was God the SON who shed His blood for the church).

Regarding all of these first-century churches, it is very important to note that they were comparable to one another. In other words, they all had the same basic kind of worship and organization; they all had the same teachings! Don't believe me? See for yourself...

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4:17, made the point that he taught the same things everywhere in every church. Later, he wrote to the Ephesians that there is "one faith." The word faith in this case refers to a system of beliefs; there is ONE system of beliefs, ONE standard of doctrine and practice, the New Testament!

Think about it, we have just ONE New Testament and yet there are over 1,200 different denominations in existence today! Something's not adding up. If I gave ten people the same recipe for chocolate cake, would they not all bake a chocolate cake? If I gave ten contractors the same blueprints for a house, would they not all build the same basic house? Likewise, if ten groups of people read and follow the same New Testament, the same thing should result each and every time. Without human traditions and manmade creeds...if we set all that aside and just followed the New Testament, there would be unity. Perfect unity, in fact.

"Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be NO divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment...Now I say this, that each of you says, 'I am of Paul,' or 'I am of Apollos,' or 'I am of Cephas,' or 'I am of Christ.' Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (1 Cor. 1:10, 12-13). You see, if we all hold fast to the "one faith" we can be perfectly unified, but when we start elevating MEN above GOD, we soon become divided. I would suggest to you that the problem in Corinth is a microcosm of the problem of denominationalism today. People are more interested in their own particular brand of Christianity than they are in true, Biblical Christianity.

If we simply preach the WORD OF GOD and set aside everything else, we can be unified. Throw away the denominations. Toss out the creed-books. Mark out the denominational names such as Baptist and Catholic. Disband the synods and annual church conferences and other such unscriptural organizational entities. Just get back to the BIBLE. We're told in Colossians 3:17, "And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." What must one do to be saved? How must the church worship? How should the church be organized? What should be taught concerning the return of Christ? If we all humble ourselves before God and commit to following HIS WORD ALONE, walls and barriers will be torn down and we will make ardent strides towards Christianity as God intended it to be (Jn. 17:20-21).

I'll talk more about this tomorrow, because there is much more to say!

I'm Baaaaaack...

Well, I've been without the internet for almost a year now. In that time, I've moved into a new house and I'm working with a new congregation, the Zoe church of Christ. But now we've got internet again and so I'll be returning to the blogging world. Assuming I have the time, I'll be writing new Bible-based articles several times a week. I may even write one later today.

Let me know if you have any questions and as always, comment on my articles, even if you disagree...especially if you disagree. We can help each other to learn more about God's precious word, and maybe, just maybe have some fun in the process. After all, Bible study is fun!