Tag Archives: salvation

Empty

“At about midnight… there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened.”

He ran. His scabbard flapped awkwardly on his hip. He tripped, but caught himself on his hands. An old piece of glass stuck hard into his palm. He pushed himself upward and kept running. The ground shook again, and a beam fell hard on his helmet, knocking him to the ground.

He slept… and then awoke. The moonlight made rays through the crumbled hallway. His ears were ringing. At first he couldn’t move, so he laid there a moment, for some reason examining the cobwebs moving in the breeze. It took awhile, but he got to his knees, his palm stinging as he pressed it into the dirt floor.

The door of the cell next to him was empty, its door bent and hanging loosely on its hinges. He stared for a moment, wondering how long he’d been asleep. He imagined the prisoners tiptoeing quietly past him. This was horrible. He’d worked for Rome 19 years, and next year he’d finish his service. He hadn’t been happy–not happy with guarding a prison, not happy with being sent to Philippi, not happy with much of anything lately.

He drew his sword, placing its tip at the bottom of his sternum and angling it upward. It glinted in the moonlight and began to draw drops of blood. He let out a rasping yell that echoed off the cold walls, but was interrupted:

“Do not harm yourself! For we are all here.”

It was the short man. He’d been singing earlier–some Hebrew song. The short man’s hand was on the prisoner who’d been in the empty cell. Behind him, peeking out of the cells, were all the others. Earlier in the evening, the short man had spoken about salvation–salvation from evil. Salvation from destroying and being destroyed. He had been destroying things and people all of his life, and if the prisoners had left, the very Rome that he’d spent all his energy on would have turned on him for his failure. But the prisoners had stayed. The prisoners who could have had real salvation had stayed in this dark place where they had no freedom and no possessions. It was absurd behavior.

But he was curious, because his dissatisfaction weighed on him every evening he stood here, doing nothing more than remaining awake guarding prisoners, who usually didn’t bother to provide songs as entertainment. He needed salvation, although he wasn’t sure from what. He looked into the short man’s eyes.

“Sirs… what must I do to be saved?”

The short man glanced down for a moment, and then met the soldier’s eyes again:

“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”

Acts 16:25-34

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“Those who are of faith are blessed”

History hinges on Genesis 12:1-3. Prior to this we have seen God working on the world as a whole. At least in what we have recorded, God did not significantly select one nation over the others until Genesis 12, when He calls Abraham. Here, the call becomes exclusive. God chooses Abraham. He tells Abraham that he will become a great nation. From here onward, Scripture records the history of Israel, not the history of Babylon, England, China, the United States, or any other nation.

In fact, God promises here to fight for the descendents of Abraham:

“I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” -Genesis 12:3 (ESV)

This is what we see throughout the Old Testament. God fights for Israel. He fights for them against foreign nations, but He also fights for them against their own sin and corruption. When Israel becomes corrupted, God brings Assyria and Babylon to crush them, leaving only a remnant of faithful people who will again establish the nation of Israel as it was meant to be.

Repeatedly, God chooses one thing, but not another. He chooses one nation, and not another nation. God encourages one kind of behavior, and he condemns another. Here in Genesis 12, God has chosen Israel.

The call was not one-sided. I’m sure that, if Abraham had chosen not to obey the Lord, then God would not have blessed him or fought for him. But Abraham “went, as the Lord had told him.” Just like throughout all of Israel’s history, Abraham’s obedience was a sign that he accepted God. By doing “as the Lord had told him,” Abraham was signalling to God that he would allow God to bless him and his offspring.

History hinges on Genesis 12:1-3 because in choosing Abraham, God chose you. God’s intent in exclusively choosing Abraham was that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In Galatians 3:9, God tells us, in the words of Paul, that “those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

Abraham demonstrated that he accepted God by going where God told him to go. Through Abraham’s faith, everyone in the world can be blessed. Through Abraham’s descendants, God raised up a nation that understood Him, a nation that would be prepared for the coming of Jesus, a nation that called Jesus their Messiah, their expected One, the One who would redeem them. And through Jesus, God calls each of us. The symbol of Abraham’s faith was obedience, and the symbol of our faith is identification with Jesus–believing in Him.

But still, God’s call is exclusive. God hates evil, suffering, greed, and everything that’s wrong with the world. God blesses “those who are of faith”, but He curses evil, and if a person does not choose God, they choose evil. There are only two choices: God, or not-God. God is calling you, just as He called Abraham. Are you “of faith”? If so, Scripture is not just Israel’s history, but also your history.

“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” –Galatians 3:7 (ESV)

The major rift between Christianity and culture is not belief or disbelief in absolute truth

I’ve often heard that the major rift between Christianity and US culture is this: Christians affirm absolute truth, but culture affirms that truth is relative and not absolute. That is, Christians affirm that we’re correct about God and that contrary thoughts are incorrect. Culture at large affirms that there is really no truth, and that people can choose their own truth, follow their own religion, and that it’s most  important for us to all get along.

However, I don’t think this is the fundamental discordance between US Christians and US culture. The idea of relative truth is certainly in our culture, but the silly thing about this idea is that it’s self-refuting. To claim that “there is no absolute truth” is to claim that the statement itself isn’t necessarily true. Because there is no absolute truth, the statement that “there is no absolute truth” can’t be absolutely true. Disbelief in absolute truth is an obviously inconsistent and illogical thing to believe.

I don’t think that most people in the U.S. are actually this dense. Common, everyday people are intelligent enough to see that disbelieving in absolute truth is nonsense. I’m sure you can find a number of philosophy professors who would take issue with this, but I doubt you can find very many everyday people to agree with them. People are smart enough to believe in absolute truth, and I don’t think this is the major rift between Christianity and U.S. culture.

Rather, I think the major discordance is between our values. The general culture in the U.S. believes that the most important virtue is to avoid causing harm to other people–whether that harm be physical, psychological, social, or otherwise. Some particularly virtuous people might say that the most important virtue is to do good to other people and that nothing can be more admirable and moral than to seek the good of others.

The difference between these values and the values of Jesus seems slight if you’ve never thought about it before. About 2,000 years ago, Jesus told us what our chief virtue as His disciples should be:

“And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” -Matthew 22:35-39

As Christians, our most important virtue is to love God. Secondly, we’re to love people. The central truth of being a follower of the Messiah is that God can satisfy us more than anything else on earth. If we have faith in Jesus’s sacrifice, we can be made spiritually alive, and in this redeemed state we can love the God who saved us.

But our second imperative is to love other people–and this means telling them about God, about Jesus who came to die for us, and about how they too can be made spiritually alive. For each and every person who lives, loving and knowing God is the most satisfying thing they can do. Because of this, there’s nothing more kind than to tell another person about Jesus, and about how He can save them as He has saved us.

And this is where Christians clash with most non-Christians in the US. If you tell someone to seek God, they may not like hearing that. They may want to go on believing that there is no God, or at least that God doesn’t matter. If you tell someone to seek God, you may cause them to be uncomfortable–and this is counter to the number one imperative of our culture: do no harm to other people.

As followers of the one true God, there is no way we can get around this disagreement. It’s the core of our faith to believe that by knowing God, any and every human will be infinitely better off than if they did not know God. If we ourselves know God, then we’ll tell our friends, family, and acquaintances that they should know Him too. It is secondarily important that we all get along and be kind to each other, but it’s far, far more important that as many people as possible come to know Jesus as their Savior.

Throw yourself into the sea

After the crucifixion, Peter had failed as a follower of Jesus. Rather than remaining by Jesus’ side until His death on the cross, Peter had fled, and then denied ever having known Jesus. He had thoroughly abandoned his teacher. What else could he do but go back to the life he knew before Jesus had called him? He certainly couldn’t claim to be a disciple anymore.

“Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.” -John 21:3 (ESV)

Peter went back to being a fisherman, but now he was even failing at what he used to do for a living. He had failed as a disciple, and he had failed as a fisherman. He got into the boat, went back to his old business of fishing, and he caught nothing.

So is it surprising that Peter dives into the sea and swims when he sees Jesus standing on the shore? What other chance does he have to be useful for anything? Only when he was with Jesus had Peter ever been useful. Jesus made Peter come alive in a way that nothing else ever had or ever could. When Peter was with Jesus, Peter had a purpose. Jesus had been building something great with Peter and the other disciples, and Peter craved the sense of purpose he had known as a disciple of the One true God. He must have remembered what Jesus had told him:

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” -Matthew 16:18 (ESV)

So, although he was “stripped for work,” Peter “threw himself into the sea.” Only Jesus had ever made Peter come alive with excitement and purpose. Without Jesus, Peter was just a failure, plodding through life as a common fisherman.

The same is true of me. Jesus has made me come alive in a way nothing else ever has or ever could. The same can be true for you and for every other person. Without Jesus, we have no purpose. We fail at life. Only He can make us come alive. Only He can give us purpose. So why would we want to keep plodding through life and toiling away and catching nothing? We need to leave behind anything worldly that we think is important. I need Jesus, you need Jesus, and everyone else needs Jesus. He can build us into a rock, and even the gates of hell cannot stop us from doing His work.

Will God punish sons for the sins of their fathers?

One concept that has always galled me is the promise of God to punish a son for his father’s sin. Why should a person be held responsible for something their parent did? It doesn’t seem fair.

In fact, I have misunderstood this idea–God does punish sons for their fathers’ sin, even today, and it’s not a terribly unjust thing to do. The statement appears first in the ten commandments:

“I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

-Exodus 20:5-6

This is about God and how He deals with people.  Firstly, I misunderstood this passage because I read it with the wrong emphasis. I immediately focused on the fact that God will punish the third and fourth generation of a sinner. The fact is that He also shows “steadfast love to the thousandth generation.”

To the thousandth generation!

The purpose of the passage is to exhort Israel to love God. God didn’t want Israel to love things--idols–more than they loved Him. God cannot let sin go unpunished, and so He would exact justice if there was wrong-doing, and the ultimate wrong-doing is to hate God and to love things more than God. However, if only a single person in Israel loved God, He would show steadfast love to a thousand generations after that person.

Our love is insignificant compared to God’s love, but so is our sin, because God has multiplied His love and continued to multiply it until it’s sufficient to cover all our sins. In Israel, people rebelled horribly against God, and they did so almost continually, as chronicled in Judges, Kings, the prophets, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible. God did punish them, and many generations of Jews were exiled to Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. But there were also a few in Israel who loved God–you only need to read David’s Psalms to find beautiful examples of this.

Because of only a few who loved Him, God kept His word to Israel, showing steadfast love to thousands of generations of Jews, until at last He sent His Son, the ultimate manifestation of His love, not just for the Jews, but also for all people everywhere. So God’s love is greater than our sin, and He loves more readily than He judges.

But in the shadow of God’s mighty promise to love for a thousand generations is still the promise to punish sons for the sins of their fathers. This isn’t an obscure passage. It’s a robust, undeniable theme throughout the whole Scriptures. It occurs repeatedly, quoted word-for-word in several places (Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9-10, Jeremiah 32:18). The idea also occurs in the Psalms and in numerous other places.

Paul tells us that we inherit sin from Adam, who is the first man, the father of us all, and the first sinner. By being Adam’s descendants, we inherit his sin, and we inherit the punishment for his sin–death (Romans 5:12). Because of this, every single one of us is a sinner from birth (Romans 3:23). David agrees, mourning in Psalm 51:5 that he was born sinful–“In sin did my mother conceive me.” And again in Psalm 58:3, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth.” Paul restates in Ephesians 2:3 that we are sinful “by nature“.

And for the longest time each one of these verses bothered me a bit. Shouldn’t we all be innocent until we do something that makes us guilty? But then I realized–I think by reading C.S. Lewis–that we all do things that make us guilty. This is the second reason I misunderstood this passage.

The issue is not so much that we inherit our father’s punishment as it is that we inherit our father’s sins. You’ve seen this everywhere. Children of lazy parents grow up to be lazy people. Children of angry parents grow up to be angry people. Children of abusive parents often grow up to abuse their children.

It’s a terrible, terrible cycle, but you’ve probably seen it in your own life. I’ve certainly seen it in mine. My dad has trouble making himself help my mom (who still has kids at home to care for) clean up around the house. You may ask my wife, and she’ll tell you that this is something I struggle with as well. I sometimes get to thinking that my school work is more important than a clean house that she’ll enjoy–but it certainly isn’t.

So why should it bother me that the Bible affirms something I’ve seen over and over in people all around me? The answer is that it shouldn’t bother me. It is the truth. God has blessed us infinitely more than He has judged us, and the fact that children inherit sin from their parents is patently obvious.

Furthermore, God’s love has been multiplied through all the generations of Israel and Christians, and I have been a recipient of grace upon grace–the grace of being alive and experiencing life, and the grace of His Son, Jesus the Messiah, who took the punishment that I inherited–the punishment for my sin–and paid for it completely with His life.

You have inherited sin as well–I’m sure you can tell me a million little things that you fail at, things you shouldn’t have said or done, people you should have been kinder to or more helpful to. The sins may seem small, but what about when you have a child? You may lose your temper sometimes, but your child may learn this from you. Perhaps his temper will be worse than yours, and perhaps he will teach his son to be angry as well. Our sins multiply. Even what seems like a small thing can affect someone else profoundly. You can crush a person’s ego for life with a single poorly-considered word. The son of a hothead may grow up to be a murderer, and that father, who merely had a temper, would be largely responsible for the lack of self-control that he taught his son.

The Gospel is that we can have a new Father in heaven. If you have not believed in God and in the sacrifice of His Son, then you still have your inherited sin, but if you accept Jesus and His saving sacrifice on the cross, you can have a new Father (Galatians 4:1-7). From this new Father, you will inherit not sin and a punishment of death in hell, but righteousness and eternal life with Him in heaven. God is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” and you need only to accept Him as your God.

“In the same way also, when we were children, we were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

-Galatians 4:3-7

[You might also want to check out this wonderful lady’s blog post: http://meetingintheclouds.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/part-8-i-am-adopted-i-have-a-father/ She is a 74 year old Christian in Australia, and she understands this verse in Galatians in a profound way. I stumbled across her blog a few months ago.]