Justified by faith and justified by works (James 2:14-26)

“Does the Bible teach that we are justified by faith alone, or does the Bible teach that we are justified by our works?” This question was one of the central issues of the Protestant Reformation and remains the main dividing line between evangelical Christians and Catholics. “Justification by faith alone” is a non-negotiable doctrine of the Christian faith because it is a central teaching of the New Testament. On the other hand, a major doctrine of Catholicism is that the Catholic is saved by faith and works. This teaching was firmly established as Catholic doctrine at the Council of Trent and is still the doctrine of the Catholic Church today. Thus, the two positions contradict one another. Justification is either by faith alone or it is by faith and human works, but both positions cannot be true.

A PROBLEM PASSAGE?

And this brings us to a passage in the New Testament book of “James” that seems to create a conundrum, because James explicitly states in James 2:24,

“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Now, it is a fact that the overwhelming majority of New Testament teachings on justification explicitly state that justification is by faith. “Works” are either expressly rejected within the passage or are prohibited by the context of the passage. (A list of these passages is given at the end of this article.) But now we see that this passage in James 2 seems to declare that justification is by works. In light of this verse and this passage, Catholics say that their doctrine of justification by faith plus works has biblical warrant.

Is this the case? Do Paul and James contradict one another in the fundamental doctrine of justification? Is there a contradiction in the New Testament, indeed, a major contradiction? Is the Bible ambiguous on how a sinner is justified? We will need to investigate this passage in James 2:14-26 to see if these things are so.

TWO DIFFERENT QUESTIONS

First, the good news is that there is no contradiction in the Bible’s teaching on justification. The Bible is the Holy-Spirit inspired, God-breathed infallible word of the living God and, as such, has no contradictions. The Bible is the Christian’s final source for all matters of faith and practice and is trustworthy. Therefore, we know from the outset that Paul and James do not contradict one another. But, having said that, we must nevertheless carefully consider this passage in James 2 and see why there is no contradiction with the rest of the New Testament.

Second, a reading of James 2:14-26 will reveal that James is addressing the situation where the person in view already has faith. James’ teaching in this passage requires that the person under consideration already professes faith in Jesus. In fact, the entire passage is predicated on a claim of saving faith. So, in this passage James is not addressing the question, “How does a person receive salvation?” Rather, this passage addresses the question, “Is the faith that you claim you have received a saving faith that manifests itself in works keeping with salvation?” The answers to these two questions cannot contradict each other because they answer two entirely different questions.

JAMES AND PAUL ON JUSTIFICATION

Paul’s teaching on justification is almost entirely focused on answering the first question above, “How is a sinner justified unto salvation?” Paul consistently and repeatedly answers that question with, “The sinner is justified by faith (alone).”

By contrast, in James 2:14-26, James is dealing with the second question; namely, “How is the faith that you claim justified (proven)?” James answers that question with, “The claim of faith must be justified (proven) by your works.” So, it may be said that James is, indeed, teaching “justification by works.” James is teaching that saving faith is “justified” by a changed life full of “works,” full of evidence that you are saved.

With that understanding as a background, the difficulties of James 2:14-26 disappear, and the passage flows easily.

INTERPRETING THE PASSAGE

  • 2:14-17 – James gives an example of faith without works. “What use is that (2:16)?” The expected answer is, “It’s not worth anything!” “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead.” A works-less faith is dead.
  • 2:18 – The difficulty of a claim of faith is that anyone can make such a claim. It may be a justified claim, or it may be an empty claim, but there is no way to tell based on the claim alone. Ah, but show me your godly works, and show me your obedience, and show me your fruit in keeping with repentance, and I will believe your claim of faith.
  • 2:19 – You can make a claim of faith and the demons can make a claim of faith, but if your claim is not justified by visible godly works, your claim will net you a demon’s reward.
  • 2:20 – James is now going to give illustrations of those who were justified by saving faith, because “faith without works is useless.”
  • 2:21-23 – Abraham proved the immensity of his faith by obediently being willing to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. The faith that had justified Abraham and that was reckoned to him as righteousness many years before (Genesis 15:6); that faith was justified and perfected when Abraham offered up Isaac on Moriah.
  • You see that Abraham was justified by faith, but Abraham’s faith was justified by his works.
  • 2:24 – “You see that a man is justified by works and not by (a claim of) faith alone.”
  • 2:25 – Even Rahab the harlot proved that she had saving faith because she risked her life by sending the spies out by another way. In this way, her invisible saving faith was made visible. So, she was justified by her works.
  • 2:26 – James concludes his argument, “Faith without works is dead.”

APPLICATION

            The first application of this teaching is to assure the believer that James and Paul are not at odds and the Bible is not unclear about justification. James and Paul are addressing two different questions and are using “justification” in two different ways.

            The second application would be as a possible Bible study opportunity for one of your Catholic friends. If your friend was willing to listen to this teaching from James AND also listen to the teaching on justification by faith unto salvation, you may be able to use this as an evangelistic opportunity.

            SDG                 rmb                 4/26/2021

It is faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.

“Justification by faith” verses or passages:
Romans 3:22, 24, 28, 30; 4:2-6; 5:1; 9:30-33; Galatians 2:16, 21; 3:6, 8, 11; Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 11:6, 7, 17-19; 1 Peter 1:5, 9

Eschatological Detective and Interpretive Clues

This post is an excerpt from an upcoming book called, “The Last Act in the Drama: A Guide to the End-Times.” The blog is teaching the skills needed to interpret eschatological passages in the Scripture by acute observation, finding “interpretive clues,” and weaving the observations and clues into a cohesive whole. rmb 4/21/2021.

Sherlock Holmes is probably the most well-known detective of all time. He is a master of solving with apparent ease mysteries that completely baffled others and that seemed to have no solution. What was it that made Sherlock Holmes so remarkably successful? I would suggest that his brilliance was attributed to three specific skills: 1) Acute powers of observation that allow him to see details which others have missed or ignored; 2) the skill to turn observations into meaningful clues; and 3) the ability to put the clues together to create a cohesive picture that reveals the solution to the mystery.

As we are considering the study of biblical eschatology and are attempting to solve the “mysteries” of difficult texts, we will discover that there are parallels between the way Sherlock Holmes solved nefarious mysteries and the way we will interpret the meaning of end-times passages.

THREE SPECIFIC SKILLS

Like our friend Sherlock, we, too, will need three specific skills.

ACUTE OBSERVATION

First, the eschatological detective needs acute powers of observation. We should look high and low in the text for possible clues that might reveal interpretation and meaning. No detail should be ignored, at least initially, as we dig into the passage. If we have training in the original languages, the Greek or Hebrew/Aramaic texts should be examined. Our observation must be unbiased as we approach the text. This is especially critical in eschatology. We should not come to the text with a preconceived idea of what it means or of what clues we are going to find there. Instead, we approach it like a detective coming to a fresh crime scene.

INTERPRETIVE CLUES

You might ask, “What are we looking for?” I am glad you asked! We are looking for “interpretive clues.” In breathing out the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit has written into the text a variety of clues that allow the meaning of these end-times passages to be discerned. The following are some examples of “interpretive clues:”

  • Identical words and especially identical phrases that appear in two different places in a book. There are many examples of this type of interpretive clue, especially in Revelation, and these clues are vital to understanding how one section of the book relates to another. “A short time” is in Rev. 12:12, and also in 20:3. The same idea is in Revelation 6:11, “a little while.” This common phrase connects these passages. Another example is the phrase “gather them together for the war” in Rev. 16:14, and the identical phrase appears in Rev. 20:8, while “assembled (their armies) to make war” is in Rev. 19:19. This clue reveals that these passages are describing the same event. These are probably the most powerful interpretive clues, so be alert for these.
  • Symbolic use of colors and numbers in the book of Revelation. The color white is always used to indicate purity and righteousness and is identified with Jesus Christ. Red is associated with Satan. The number “thousand” is not used literally but is symbolic for a large number. Twelve is symbolic for the Old Testament people of God (the twelve tribes) and for the New Testament people of God, the faithful church (the twelve apostles). Seven is the number of completion or perfection (seven lampstands, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc.). Be alert, then, for symbolic use of numbers.
  • Similar characteristics used to describe different characters. This type of clue may be the most subtle, but it is also powerful. When you are reading a passage in, say, Daniel chapter 7, and the character described sounds very similar to the character from, say, 2 Thessalonians, the radar should go up and you should think, “interpretive clue!” These similar characteristics are probably not describing multiple characters but are probably describing the same figure. In this way, we get multiple “snapshots” of this end-times’ figure so he is easier to identify when he appears.

CONNECT THE CLUES TO FORM A COHESIVE WHOLE

So, those are some of the interpretive clues to look for, but what do we do with these interpretive clues once we have gathered them? This introduces the third skill, which is the art of connecting the interpretive clues to create a cohesive picture of a passage or an entire book. Having gathered our clues, we now need to assign meaning to the clues so that we can understand the end-times passage. Some questions to ponder during this part of the investigation are these:    

  • What is the best understanding of the symbols in this passage? What do these symbols mean?
  • When will the events in this passage occur? Or have they already occurred? Discerning the correct sequence of events is critical to end-times study, particularly in Revelation.
  • What are all the clues and texts about this subject and how do they fit together? If you are trying to figure out the meaning of some figure in the end-times, like, for example, the 144,000 (Rev. 7:1-8; 14:1-5), it is important to locate all the texts about that subject.
  • Is this passage continuous, or are there time-gaps in the passage?
  • Is this passage written in chronological order, or does it jump forward or backward in time?
  • Are these numbers to be understood literally or figuratively? What do these numbers mean?

There are many other questions that we could ask, but the point is that by asking these types of questions, gradually, like a doctor developing a diagnosis, we develop an interpretation of the passage or the section or the book. “This is what this means based on my understanding of the meaning of these interpretive clues.” Then, before we reveal our solution to others, we must test our solution to be sure it does not have inconsistencies. Like a jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces need to fit together.

PUTTING THESE SKILLS TO WORK

This, then, is the work of the end-times detective. We enter the text with our most concentrated observation, and we search for interpretive clues. Then we weave these clues and observations together into a cohesive whole that gives us a picture of how God is going to glorify Himself through the bodily return of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ and through the people that Christ has purchased with His blood on the cross. The Bible’s end-times passages give ample opportunity to put these skills to profitable use so that we are edified, and Christ is exalted.

SDG                 rmb                 4/21/2021

When is disappointment a sin?

My friend and I had talked for a long time over breakfast on Saturday morning about how crazy the real estate market is in Charlotte. When a house comes on the market, there are usually twenty showings the first day and then fifteen offers are made, all of them over the asking price, and within 48 hours the house is under contract. Davis and his wife, Natalie, had found a house they wanted, and Davis and I were talking about what they should offer. My advice was, “Go all-in, Davis. When God sent His Son to earth to save us, He went ‘all-in.’ So, we should live as ‘all-in’ people to demonstrate our trust in the Lord.” We had prayed about the house, and I had asked the Lord to provide the desire of their heart (Psalm 37:4). Then I had prayed, and I know that Davis and Natalie had prayed, throughout Saturday and Sunday, that their “all-in” offer would win the house.

Early Tuesday morning I received a text from Davis that their offer did not win the house. He said, “it is tough, but the Lord did what was best for us.” I replied, “Amen! The Lord has revealed His will in the matter. Romans 8:28.”

NOT DISAPPOINTED

Now, what is significant is that neither of us used the word “disappointed” in our conversation. We did not use the word “disappointed,” because we were not disappointed. We had prayed to our God and our God had given a clear answer. There was no ambiguity at all. The sovereign Lord of the universe inclined His ear to us (Psalm 116:1-2). He heard our supplications (Psalm 6:9) and the King of kings answered us (Psalm 99:6, 8)! And our loving God said, “No.” It was not the answer that we had requested, but we acknowledged that the Lord is infinitely wise, and He knows what is best. And, after all, He is the Lord. He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). But we were not disappointed.

UNDERSTANDING DISAPPOINTMENT

“Disappointment comes from unmet expectations.”

There is a lot of truth in this common expression. And this applies to believers as well as unbelievers. When our expectations are not met, we feel let down and we may even feel a little cheated, like somehow the world is obligated to meet our expectations. If that is our attitude, we will need to accept the advice from the dread Pirate Robert in the movie, “Princess Bride:” “Get used to disappointment.” Most (all?) of our expectations are baseless and unrealistic. “Why did you have that expectation?” “I don’t know, I just did.” “Oh. Well then, get used to disappointment.”

So, that is a little about disappointment from the world’s perspective. But there is also a disappointment that applies uniquely to the Christian when we request and the Lord answers, but we do not like the answer we received, and thus we are disappointed. This disappointment is sin because it means we are not satisfied with God’s performance. In this case, our prayer “requests” were really veiled demands and God did not do our bidding. To put it another way,

“Disappointment comes from unmet prayer requests.”

You had prayed fervently about a job opportunity, and someone else got the job, and you remain unemployed. Like Davis and Natalie, you prayed that your offer would win the house, and you came in second. You prayed for healing and your friend died. You have prayed for a godly spouse and yet you remain alone. And so, you feel something inside. Is it disappointment?

DISAPPOINTMENT IS A SIN

In these cases, I would suggest that disappointment is sin, because the “request” was really a demand. When we are disappointed with a clear answer to our prayer, have we not treated God as our servant?

Isn’t our thinking a lot like this? “After all, we did what we were supposed to do. We made our request according to the formula (Matthew 7:7; Philippians 4:6), we even prayed, ‘In Jesus’ name. Amen.’ We put our prayers in the correct slot of the prayer machine, and we expected the right answer, but out came an answer we did not request.” In essence, our disappointment says that God got the answer wrong. God did not do our bidding, so we are disappointed.

The truth is that when we experience disappointment, it means we were not seeking God’s will on a matter and then accepting His answer as the perfect answer, but instead we expressed our demand in a “prayer request,” and then pouted when God gave us the wrong answer. (See Jonah, chapter 4, for a good example of this.)

This is the very essence of sin. We, the creatures, are disappointed with the Lord God, the Creator of the universe. Brothers and sisters, we must be very cautious when we make demands of our God. Like Job, we should repent of this in dust and ashes (Job 42:6).

HUMBLE ACCEPTANCE IN PLACE OF DISAPPOINTMENT

Alan had been a pilot for American Airlines, when he contracted a rare disease that robbed him of his eyesight. Some years after he was blinded, Alan was having a conversation with his mother. His mother is a strong Christian who has walked with the Lord a long time, but she was asking Alan how he felt about being blinded. Didn’t he wrestle with God about this? Alan simply said, “We accept what the Lord allows.”

Queen Esther understood what it was to go before the sovereign king and make a request. She was not making a demand, but rather a humble request. And she accepted the possible answers and their consequences: “If I perish, I perish (Esther 4:16).”

Likewise, we should replace disappointment with acceptance of the Lord’s perfect will.

CONCLUSION

The Lord invites His children to come boldly to His throne and He calls us to make our requests to Him as our Abba, Father (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16), but He remains ever and always the One who sovereignly “works all things (including all answers to our prayers) after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11)” to the praise of His glory.

Therefore, I will repent of disappointment and will replace it with acceptance of the Lord’s perfect will, and I will rejoice in the love of the Lord my God. Replace disappointment with contentment (Philippians 4:10-13).

SDG                 rmb                 4/20/2021

The danger of merely tasting Christ (Hebrews 6:4-6)

In a recent post (April 9), we began a consideration of Hebrew 6:1-8, a passage that talks about the danger of “tasting” all the truths of the gospel and hearing all the glories of Christ without ever coming to true faith in Christ. This post will continue in that vein.

A SUMMARY OF HEBREWS 6:4-6

The best way to understand Hebrews 6:4-6 is as a strong warning about the danger of hearing the gospel of salvation and yet never actually coming to faith in Jesus. The author suspects that some in the fellowship are still unsaved because they remain on the fence, considering the claims of Christ but refusing to make a full commitment to Jesus. Here in this passage, the author warns that, if you delay long over the call to faith, and if you persist in refusing Him who calls, then there may come a time when your heart will grow cold and when the gospel no longer compels you to respond. If you merely taste the things of Christ without confessing Him as Lord and Savior, you may know that experience where “it is impossible to renew you again to repentance (6:6).” At that place, your eternal doom is forever sealed. Tasting Christ without trusting Christ will be regretted forever in hell. So, this is a very sober passage.

TASTING, BUT NOT BELIEVING – HEBREWS 6:4-6

The full gospel had come to the readers of this letter. “God had testified to the gospel by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit (2:4).” They had been called to enter God’s rest (3:7-4:13). They had heard the message about Jesus, their great High Priest (4:14-5:10). The gospel had been proclaimed such that they had heard the truth about Christ and about His salvation. How had they responded?

“For in the case of those who had once been enlightened (6:4)

These had heard the gospel proclaimed, probably many times. Upon hearing it, they had been enlightened. They had become aware that Jesus, the Son of God from heaven, had come and died on the cross, and risen on the third day. But, having heard the gospel, they have not believed the gospel and called on the Lord. (Romans 10:13-14) They are enlightened, but still unbelieving.

“and have tasted of the heavenly gift (6:4)

The “heavenly gift” is the gift of the One who came from heaven. The heavenly gift is Christ Himself. But Christ is not merely to be tasted but is to be received as Lord and Savior (John 1:12). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves (John 6:53).” A tasting can never save. You must love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength (Matthew 22:37).

“and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit (6:4)”

I do not know what it mean to be a “partaker” of the Holy Spirit I know what it means to be sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14). The Word teaches about being indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16). There are certainly gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). These verses describe a vital, saving relationship with the Holy Spirit, but being a “partaker” talks about an association or a familiarity, but does not speak of a saving relationship. The true believer is empowered and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, not merely a “partaker” of Him.

“and have tasted the good word of God

These people had been in the assembly of the church and they had heard the pastors and the elders teach the Bible, and they had been moved. “Ah, surely here is power and truth! Yes, these men can preach!” They had enjoyed the Bible teaching, but they had not been changed by the Word. They tasted the Word, but they did not embrace the Word. If the Word did not agree with their opinions or desires, they just tuned it out or rejected it. A taste of the good word of God will not cleanse a filthy heart or open blind eyes.

“and have tasted the powers of the age to come

There were some people in the church who has seen signs and wonders and miracles (2:4) performed before their very eyes. They had tasted the powers of the age to come, but their interest in Christ remained lukewarm. 

Yes, they had been exposed to everything about the glory of God and the salvation offered in the Lord Jesus Christ. They had heard it all, and yet they remained unconverted. They still had not unreservedly run to Jesus. They had not bowed the knee to the Jesus and confessed Him as Lord. They were comfortable with these ideas and enjoyed associating with those in the church, but nevertheless they remained once-born.

THE DANGER OF MERELY TASTING

There is a danger in continuing to taste of salvation without coming all the way to full repentance. Today the word of the gospel may have an appeal and there is in your heart a curiosity about Christ, maybe even an attraction to Christ. You enjoy being in the company of believers and the Bible is an interesting book. You even had the thought, “You know, maybe I’ll become a Christian today.” You are tasting Christ, but you are not trusting in Christ.

For in the case of those who have tasted “and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.” – Hebrews 6:6

But the danger of merely tasting Christ without embracing Christ as Lord and Savior is that one day, suddenly, you “have fallen away.” Suddenly, one day the gospel is foolishness to you. In a moment, your curiosity about Jesus has vanished like smoke. All of a sudden, you despise the people in the church and the Bible is a dead book. Your heart has gone from lukewarm to ice cold. You “have fallen away” and the collapse is both irreversible and complete.

Most chilling of all, your eternal destiny is now sealed, for if you “have fallen away, it is impossible to renew you again to repentance.” You are doomed to be damned. Repentance is now impossible. Hebrews 10:26-27 gives this warning:

If you have fallen away “after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.”

You have heard the gospel and have heard of the offer of salvation in Christ, but you delayed too long, and now the offer has been forever withdrawn. Now all that awaits you is a “terrifying expectation of judgment.”

SEVEREST WARNING POSSIBLE

Because of the eternal danger of falling away, the author of this letter is giving the severest warning possible. If you fall away, the opportunity for repentance is eternally lost. If you fall away, you can never be saved. Therefore, come to Christ now!

“Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart (Hebrews 4:7).” Act now! Come to faith in Jesus now! The Lord will not call forever. There is an urgency to your response.

Do not hesitate until the call of the Holy Spirit has ceased. Then you will be like Esau, who trifled with the blessing too long, and then finally could not obtain it for any price (Hebrews 12:17). The gospel was proclaimed to you, but you refused to respond. Now your heart is cold, and the gospel is foolishness. The moment is forever lost, and it is impossible to renew you again to repentance (Hebrews 6:6).

When you sense the attraction of the gospel, when you feel the draw of the Holy Spirit, then cry out to Christ for salvation. Be like Bartimaeus, who knew that eternity hung in the balance (Mark 10:46-52). Jesus Christ is passing by! Call to Him now. Hesitate and He will be gone, and you will never have this opportunity again.

Do not be those who receive (meaning, “hear”) the grace of God in vain (2 Cor. 6:1). “Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold, now is the day of salvation (6:2).” Do not be among those who heard the good news but did not heed the good news (Romans 10:16). You have heard the message. What will you do? “Be saved from this perverse generation (Acts 2:40)!”

SDG                 rmb                 4/19/2021

Sing a new song (Isaiah 42:10)

God’s people sing. That is one of the distinguishing marks of Christians all over the world and has been a mark of followers of Jesus since our Lord commissioned His church and ascended to heaven. There is a simple reason why God’s people sing – they have a reason to sing! Believers in Jesus have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:15), so they sing.

O SING TO THE LORD A NEW SONG!

And what do they sing? They sing to the LORD a new song (Psalm 96:1). It is entirely appropriate that those who have been made new would sing a new song. Note that this is a new song. It is not like all the old songs which they sang when they were without Christ. Now the emptiness and the hopelessness and the worldliness have been replaced with a peace that passes understanding. And so we sing an entirely new song that tells the world of the One who has given us a new heart which compels us to sing.   

The new song is the song of the redeemed, the song of the twice-born. The new song is the song of those who have been raised to new life in Christ (Romans 6:4). The new song is the song of those invited to the King’s table to enjoy the marriage supper of the Lamb. Oh, now we sing a new song!

There is only one new song, although that new song is sung with myriad different voices. The one new song is the song of all those who are new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). It is the spontaneous outpouring in song from the joyful heart of the redeemed.

PRACTICE, THEN PERFECT

During this life, we get to practice singing our new song in the fellowship of our local church. Each Lord’s day we can join with God’s people in our local church and raise our voices in praise and adoration and worship to King Jesus, singing “the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).” With joy and vigor and zeal and force we song His praises, but in eternity we will sing our new song forever in heaven in the full company of all of God’s redeemed. There in heaven will be endless praise for endless days. There our faith will be sight, and there all our practice in singing our new song here will reach its ultimate consummation.

What is the theme of our new song? The theme of our new song is the praise of the One who “put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God (Psalm 40:3).” The theme of our new song is praise to the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who has given us a reason to sing.

WHERE IN THE BIBLE IS “NEW SONG?”

Besides the two places that we have already mentioned, in Psalm 40:3 and in Psalm 96:1, there are several other times that new song appears in the Bible.

Psalm 33:3 Sing to Him a new song with a shout of joy.  

Psalm 98:1 Sing to the LORD a new song, for He has done wonderful things.

Psalm 149:1 Sing to the LORD a new song. Be glad in your Maker.

Isaiah 42:10

“Behold, the former things have come to pass,
Now I declare new things;
Before they spring forth, I proclaim them to you.”

10 Sing to the Lord a new song,
Sing His praise from the end of the earth! – Isaiah 42:9-10

Notice that when the LORD declares new things (42:9), then He gives His people a new song (42:10) so that “His praise may rise from the end of the earth.” This is exactly what He has done in Christ, making His people new so that they can “Sing to the LORD a new song.”

Therefore, all who are in Christ have been given a new song, and all who are in Christ are to sing to the LORD a new song as long as they have breath.

SDG                 rmb                 4/15/2021

The danger of dead works (Hebrews 6:1-8)

There is a persistent theme that runs subtly through the chapters of the book of Hebrews, and this theme reveals the author’s purpose for writing the letter.

WHAT IS THE THEME?

The theme is that it is possible to have a religion of useless, futile rituals, which appear on the outside to evidence true faith, without having any faith at all. In other words, it is possible to fool yourself and to fool others by your religious activity, while remaining dead in your sins and performing dead religious works.

FORMERLY A PEOPLE OF DEAD WORKS

The recipients of this letter appear to have been predominantly Jewish, based on the letter’s detailed references to the history of Israel and based on in-depth discussions of the priestly duties prescribed by the Law and of the minute details of the tabernacle. Now, if this deduction is correct, then it means that most of the recipients of this letter formerly practiced the Jewish religion and thus performed ritualistic dead works as good members of the Jewish community. Formerly, then, performing useless dead works maintained your good standing in the Jewish community.

But now the gospel has come, and now all people everywhere are called to forsake their useless religious works, repent of their sins, and place their faith in Jesus, the Messiah. If they believe in Jesus, they will be saved (Romans 10:9-10, 13). Then they are to walk in good works (Ephesians 2:10).

SWAPPING OLD DEAD WORKS FOR NEW ONES

Now we refer back to the theme that runs through the letter and see how this would apply here. Since these people are accustomed to performing rituals as part of their (Jewish) religion, and since this new “religion” of following Jesus, the Messiah, is based on the Hebrew Scriptures, it is possible for some of the people to assume that this is just a new religion with new dead works. Now, instead of circumcision and Sabbath and Passover, we do the new works of baptism and resurrection day and the Lord’s Supper. Now we talk about Jesus more than we talk about Moses, and we sing different songs, and the sermons have different subjects for their messages, but basically, we are just swapping out the old set of dead works for a new set of dead works. “What am I missing?”

THE THEME LEADS TO THE PURPOSE OF THE LETTER

If you have followed me so far, then this question should have sent chills up your spine. “What are you missing?” What you are missing is that this new Way is the only way to escape the wrath of God, and the only way that you can enter this salvation is through faith. So, what you are missing is faith! Faith is everything! No, we are not just swapping out a set of Jewish dead works for a set of “Christian dead works!”

These thoughts express the author’s concerns and define the purpose of the letter. The author seems to be a teacher or a pastor in the community to which he is writing, who has been separated from them, and it is possible that he is in prison (Hebrews 13:19, 23). In any case, his purpose in writing is to warn those who are just going through dead works that they are in peril, and to spur them to genuine faith in Jesus. He exalts Christ as our great High Priest and as greater than Moses, and as greater than angels, and he warns that if you do not come to faith in Jesus, you will never enter God’s rest.

THE DANGER OF DEAD WORKS

In light of this purpose and in light of the danger of dead works, I wanted to share some thoughts that occurred to me regarding Hebrews 5:11-14; 6:1-8.

In Hebrews 5:11-12, the author rebukes the people about their ongoing immaturity.

it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.

The warning is that a perpetual immaturity suggests a sobering diagnosis of dead religion. A perpetual immaturity puts you on a trajectory that ends in dead works and apostasy. Some of these professing believers should have been teaching the word, and yet they are still on milk and not solid food. The analogy would say that the child is running in the playground but has yet to be weaned off milk. Spiritual milk is what spiritual babes need (1 Peter 2:2), but if you have been in the fellowship for a decade and you are still on milk, there is reason for serious concern.

Do you know people who have supposedly been in Christ for decades and yet still barely drink milk? They are in great peril. In the Scriptures, there does not appear to be a good excuse for ongoing immaturity. The believer is always supposed to be in the process of spiritual growth. Paul had not attained spiritual maturity (Philippians 3:12-13), but he pressed on toward the goal (3:14). Paul thus gives us two lessons: none of us has yet attained full maturity, and therefore, we are always to be growing toward greater maturity.

There are other dangers of dead works and other thoughts that I have on this subject, but I will save those for another day.

SDG                 rmb                 4/9/2021

Hearing a blind beggar’s cry (Mark 10:47)

For Bartimaeus, that day had begun like every other day. The blind man had been led down to his spot beside the Jericho road, sitting in the dirt and the dust and crying out for alms to passersby whom he could not see, most of whom intentionally tried not to see him. Few of them knew his name and fewer still had pity on him. After all, why should they be concerned about a blind beggar sitting by the road? Yes, it seemed like this would be another ordinary day.

But something was different about that day, for down the road coming out from Jericho was a large crowd, all apparently following the Man who was walking on ahead of them. The crowd was talking excitedly among themselves, as crowds do, but they were also listening intently to the words being spoken by the Teacher, the Rabbi who was leading the crowd.

Large crowds were not common on that road out of Jericho, so Bartimaeus asked about the Rabbi. Who is He?

And when he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” – Mark 10:47

It would be difficult to find a less significant person in all of Israel than this blind beggar in the dust of the Jericho road, whose lot in life was to cry out for alms. And it would be impossible to find a more significant Person in all of human history than Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of God sent from heaven “to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).” And at this moment, this most significant of men was fixed on accomplishing the most significant work in human history as He aimed for Jerusalem and His appointment with a cross.

Nevertheless, blind Bartimaeus “kept crying out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” – Mark 10:48

Could Jesus even hear the blind beggar’s cry above the din of the crowd? And even if He could, would He pay any attention? Why would He pay any attention? But Jesus does hear the beggar’s cry.

And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him here.” – Mark 10:49

Jesus interrupts His journey to Jerusalem and His mission of dying as a sacrifice for sin to call a dirty, blind beggar to Himself. What manner of Man is this (Matthew 8:27)? Bartimaeus “jumped up and came to Jesus (10:50),” and then the Son of God gave Bartimaeus a blank check.

“What do you want Me to do for you?” – Mark 10:51

Jesus put no limitations on what could be requested, because there are no limitations on what He can supply. In essence, Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “Ask Me according to your faith.”   Then, as an act of pure faith,

the blind man said to Him, “Rabboni, I want to regain my sight! – Mark 10:51

As only Jesus could do, He gave the blind beggar sight, then continued on His way to the cross with a new disciple following behind Him.

THE MESSAGE OF BARTIMAEUS

Why is this story of Bartimaeus in our Bible? It is here because all of us are born into this world as insignificant blind beggars, and we figuratively sit in the dust beside the road begging for mercy from passersby. Like blind Bartimaeus, we cannot change our situation or fix ourselves. Every day is basically the same as the last one, and we wait for someone or something that can give us hope of change.

Like Bartimaeus, we are waiting for Jesus the Nazarene. We are waiting for someone to tell us about Jesus, Son of David, who can give sight to the spiritually blind and who can give life to the spiritually dead. We are waiting for Jesus, the Man with divine power, to have mercy on us, to call us to Himself, and to allow us to follow Him forever.

For all those who know Jesus as Lord and Savior, you, like Bartimaeus, have a “that day” when you met Jesus. On “that day,” when the Lord Jesus came near, you cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And on “that day,” Jesus heard your cry and stopped and said, “Call them here.” When you realized that He was calling for you, yes, for YOU, you threw aside your cloak, and jumped up and came to Jesus.

Jesus said to you, “What do you want Me to do for you?”

“Lord, save me! Forgive me of my sins! Make me one of Your disciples. Let me walk with You.”

Then Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you.”

So, that is one reason why this story of Bartimaeus is in our Bible. It gives a picture of who we are as fallen, sinful humans and how we can come to Jesus and be saved.

SDG                 rmb                 4/8/2021

God displays His holiness (Exodus 19)

Our God is a holy God, and His holiness requires wrath and judgment against all that is unholy. Therefore, all sin receives His full wrath in judgment. Because our God is holy, we should not be surprised that the Bible presents us with occasions when the wrath of God breaks into time and space.

As the children of Israel fled the Egyptians into the wilderness, they quickly arrived at Sinai where God was going to give them His Law (Exodus 19). This giving of the Law was the first time that God had explicitly manifested His holiness to His people, stating in a moral code the expression of His holiness in commandments and ordinances. As stated, His Law was inflexible and uncompromising, and every violation received a just recompense (Hebrews 2:2). It was a Law of condemnation and judgment that required blood sacrifices if there was to be any forgiveness. The Law was terrifying and awesome and was meant to instill fear and reverence in the people.

When God delivered His Law and displayed His holiness, everything about the occasion brought feelings of awe and fear. The LORD told Moses,

Let the people be ready for the third day, for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:11-12).

Then, in 19:16:

16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.

18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the entire mountain quaked violently. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him with thunder.

The LORD is holy, and whenever He manifests Himself to sinful man, man is overwhelmed and undone (Isaiah 6). But here, not only is the LORD coming down from heaven to speak to His people, but He is also delivering His holy Law, the Law of condemnation, the Law that every one of His people will violate (Romans 3:23), the Law that will result in judgment, the Law that will require the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. So here, on Mount Sinai, everything evokes awe and fear. There is thunder and lightning flashes and thick cloud. There is a loud trumpet sound coming from heaven (19:16), and this eerie, heavenly blare of the trumpet grows louder and louder (19:19). The entire mountain is engulfed in smoke and fire. The smoke ascends like the smoke of a furnace, and the entire mountain is quaking violently. “Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).” Abject terror is the response from the people, which is entirely appropriate. God is manifesting His holiness in Law and judgment, and it evokes terrified reverence.

It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Hebrews 10:31

But there was another occasion even more awesome than this day at Mount Sinai when God again manifested His holiness. This occasion involved a hill instead of a mountain, and there was no thunder or lightning or fire or billowing smoke like a furnace. There was no eerie heavenly trumpet blast getting louder and louder. The scene was fairly quiet, just some bystanders looking on as three men endured the agony of crucifixion. Then something changed.

When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. – Mark 15:33

Darkness. There was darkness over the whole land, the darkness of judgment, the darkness of condemnation. Darkness as the expression of God’s holiness. And now the Man on the middle cross seemed to be enduring an agony much deeper than mere physical pain. This is Jesus Christ, the Chosen One. This is Jesus, the only One worthy to bear our sin, the only One able to bear our sin, Jesus Christ the Holy One enduring the full fury of the wrath of God against the sins of His people.

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Corinthians 5:21

So, for three hours on this Friday, Jesus Christ became sin for me and received the punishment that my sins deserved. He encountered the holiness of God in judgment.

At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” – Mark 15:34

But Jesus’ suffering did have an end, for there was a goal in view. By His awesome work on the cross, Jesus propitiated God’s wrath. In John’s gospel, after the agonies of God’s wrath, Jesus shouts a victory cry.

Therefore, when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. – John 19:30

Because Jesus died on the cross, we no longer stand terrified at the foot of the mountain, dreading the wrath of God and His judgment. Now, because of Jesus, God’s holiness is our holiness. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross and our faith in Him, Jesus’ perfect righteousness is our righteousness. Because of God’s grace, by our transformed lives we are now displays of God’s holiness.

SDG                 rmb                 4/7/2021

Bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20) – Part 2

A recent post was on this same verse as we were examining doctrinal implications of this text from the apostle Paul. “What truths does 1 Cor. 6:20 reinforce or establish?”

For you have been bought with a price; therefore, glorify God in your body.

The last post focused on “BOUGHT WITH A PRICE,” and from this, we saw that we could be confident about our salvation because Christ is the One who bought us. The verse indirectly teaches that, having been purchased by Christ’s blood, the believer can be assured that they will certainly persevere to heaven.

In this post, we will focus on the “YOU;” that is, we will focus on who was bought with the purchase price of Christ’s blood on the cross. Who is included in this transaction?

To review from last time, this verse describes what we might call a commercial transaction. There is a buyer, there is the item purchased, and there is the purchase price paid. In 1 Cor. 6:20, the buyer was Jesus Christ, and the purchase price was His death on the cross. Now the key question: Who did Christ buy with His death on the cross? A thoughtful reading of the verse makes it clear that the Corinthian believers were bought with the price of Christ’s death on the cross. Because they were bought with a price, they are obligated to “glorify God in their body.”

We need to pause here to think about what we have discovered so far. Paul states as fact that these Corinthian believers “were bought with a price.” But how does Paul know these people “were bought with a price?” Paul knows they “were bought with a price” because they are believers who have placed their faith in Christ and have thus been saved. Paul is not writing to the general population of Corinth letting them know that they “were bought with a price,” the price of Christ’s death on the cross. Paul has absolutely no warrant to write to anyone or to tell anyone that they “were bought with a price” unless that person manifests faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, because the only ones we know “were bought with a price” are those who have placed their faith in Jesus and thus have been saved. If there was no evident faith, the assumption would be that they were not bought with a price.

From this, it is obvious that the “default” for anyone is to assume that they were not bought with a price, for why would Paul make this grand pronouncement that the believers in Corinth “were bought with a price,” and why would he make the emphatic point that these believers were therefore obligated to glorify God in their bodies, if everyone were bought with a price when Christ died on the cross?

From this we can draw some doctrinal truths.

  • All those who have believed in the Lord Jesus and have thus been saved were bought with the price of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.
  • That a person was “bought with a price” is necessary for salvation.
  • The “default” for anyone is to assume that they were not bought with a price. It is only the manifestation of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that reveals that this person was actually bought with a price.

We have answered some important questions already, but the most controversial one remains. We have said that being bought with a price is necessary for salvation. That is, the sinner must have their sin atoned for by Jesus Christ or they cannot be saved. But there is another question, and that is, “Does the atonement of Jesus Christ guarantee salvation?” Another way of asking this is, “If a person was ‘bought with a price,’ will they certainly be saved?” That is, “Does Jesus save those for whom He atones?” There are many who answer these questions with an emphatic “Yes!” It is impossible to separate the atonement from salvation. Opposed to this view, there are others who maintain that Jesus atoned for everyone when He died on the cross, but only those who believe are saved. These people would acknowledge that atonement is necessary for salvation, but they would say that, just because Christ died for your sins, you have no guarantee of salvation. Christ died on the cross to atone for all sin and for every sin, but only those who believe are saved.

To help answer this dilemma, I offer the following example:

AN ENGAGEMENT RING EXAMPLE

When I had decided that I wanted Lisa to be my wife, I went to the jewelry store for “a commercial transaction.” I looked over the available rings and carefully selected the engagement ring that I wanted for Lisa. There were many possible rings, but I chose THAT one specific ring. I could have bought any ring that was for sale, assuming I could afford it. Or I could have bought several rings, again assuming I could afford them. I did not do that. Of all the diamond rings in the world, I chose that one particular ring, and then I bought the ring that I had chosen with the expensive purchase price. Once the transaction had been completed, most importantly, I left the store with my purchase. I was not going to pay an exorbitant price for a diamond engagement ring and then leave the ring on the counter! It would be absurd to choose a diamond ring and pay thousands of dollars for the ring and then not actually possess the ring. No! When I paid the purchase price for the ring, the ring was mine. (And now the ring is Lisa’s.) But the sequence here in my “commercial transaction” is important. I chose the ring, I bought the ring, and I possessed the ring. Chose, bought, owned. Every ring I chose, I bought, and every ring I bought, left the store in my possession. Also, there was not one single ring that I bought that did not leave the store in my possession. In other words, I did not pay an extravagant price for any ring that I left on the counter in the store. Every ring I bought was mine. That is just the nature of a commercial transaction.

In the same way that, when I paid the price for the engagement ring, the engagement ring was mine, so when Christ bought certain people at the price of His death on the cross, those certain people belonged to Christ. They will be saved and will not perish (John 6:37-40). “Does the atonement of Jesus Christ guarantee salvation?” Emphatic “Yes!” “If a person was ‘bought with a price,’ will they certainly be saved?” Emphatic “Yes!” All the ones that Christ has bought with the price of His death on the cross will certainly be saved.

On the other hand, those who hold that “everyone was bought” see Christ like the buyer of engagement rings who went to the jewelry store and paid the exorbitant price for the engagement ring, but he never took the ring out of the store. In fact, the illustration could really be taken further, because, in this view, Christ paid for all the rings in the store, and yet He did not leave with any. But does this make any sense? Who pays for a house, but never actually takes possession of it? Who pays for a car, but never drives it off the lot? Does Christ spill His blood on Calvary without ever actually saving anyone? Does Christ’s blood not atone for sin?

So then, all those who were bought with a price will certainly be saved.

SDG                 rmb                  4/6/2021

Jesus, the Changer (Luke 8:35)

Tim approached me after the worship service because he wanted to introduce me to the pretty girl he was leading around the church. I was always glad to talk to Tim, and today was no exception.

Tim was 20 years old and had been a follower of Jesus for about 18 months. Before that, Tim had been a heroin addict and had done time in juvenile detention centers. His brother had died of a drug overdose and he appeared to be heading down the same street. Then Tim met Jesus, and Tim placed his trust in Jesus, and Tim was changed. Forever changed. Dramatically changed.

“Hey Roy. It’s good to see you. I want you to meet Angelina.” “It’s good to meet you, Angelina. How did you two meet?” Tim answered. “Well, I noticed her about nine months ago and then started getting to know her in groups and stuff. Then I finally asked her out. And now, Roy, the more I got to know her, the more I said, ‘This is such a godly girl. I want to marry her!’” Later I texted Tim and told him how much I enjoyed meeting Angelina. I also told Tim I was amazed at how much Jesus had changed his life. He texted back and said, “Please pray that my love for Christ grows so I can be a good husband in the near future.” Jesus changes people.

Three years ago, Zac was definitely struggling with figuring out life. Out of college, he had been a middle school history teacher at a public school and had been outmatched by the middle schoolers, so he had resigned after one year. His Chick Fil A job was not going to ever pay much, but he had no real plans for the future. He desired to be married, but he had no prospects and did not seem to have much of an idea how to find a prospect. But Zac faithfully followed Jesus and, step-by-step, Jesus had slowly changed Zac’s life. He had joined the Air Force National Guard, had gained a skill in military intelligence, and now had a full-time job with the Guard. On Sunday Zac was beaming from ear to ear because his girlfriend Lauren had accepted his proposal of marriage and was wearing her new diamond ring. Over the last three years, as Zac walked with Jesus, Jesus did what He always does with those who worship Him: He changed Zac and conformed him more into His image. Jesus changes people.

Jesus is the great Changer. He Himself never changes (Hebrews 13:8), yet He changes the lives of all those who follow Him.

In the Bible, those who encountered Jesus and who bowed to Him as King of kings were changed. The demoniac was screaming among the tombs and gashing himself on stones, breaking his chains and being driven naked into the desert. Then he met Jesus, and he was found “sitting down at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind (Luke 8:35).” Then, as Jesus was leaving the region, He sent the former demoniac out as a missionary, proclaiming what great things Jesus had done for him. From madman to missionary.

Saul was an angry Pharisee; self-righteous, proud, and zealous for his Jewish traditions, he persecuted those who followed the way of Christ. Then he met Jesus on the Damascus road, and was struck down in the dust and blinded by the glory of the risen Lord. Three days later, Saul regained his sight, was baptized, and began to proclaim in the Jewish synagogues, “Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:20).” Later, he changed his name to Paul and spent the rest of his life until his martyrdom preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the length and breadth of the Mediterranean world. From persecutor to preacher.

The New Testament is full of these stories, where broken, sinful people met Jesus and bowed down to Him as Savior and Lord. A Samaritan woman with a checkered past meets Jesus at a well and her life is transformed. A loathsome tax collector named Zacchaeus meets Jesus and immediately reforms his ways. A blind beggar named Bartimaeus in the dust of the streets of Jericho encounters Jesus, and Jesus gives him his sight and an entirely new life as the beggar follows Jesus, the Son of David. In the New Testament, when men and women met and followed Jesus Christ, their lives were changed.

But the Jesus who changed lives during His earthly ministry 2,000 years ago is the same Jesus who is changing lives now as He rules and reigns in heaven. When you meet a genuine follower of Jesus, you have met someone who is being changed by Jesus. Many of those who follow Jesus are radically changed, but all who follow Jesus are changed.

Some changes will be highly visible and immediate, and some changes will be less visible and gradual, but if you worship Jesus, He will change your life. He marks all those who are His by changing their lives. There is no exception. If you are His, you can testify to the changes that He has made and is making in your life.

If your life shows no marked change because of meeting Jesus, you have cause for concern. Pilate met Jesus, but his life was not changed. Judas spent three years as one of Jesus’ chosen apostles, but his life was not changed. The chief priests and Pharisees met Jesus, but they were not changed. Paul met Jesus and believed in Jesus, and his life was immediately and radically changed. Does your own encounter with Jesus seem more like Pilate’s or Paul’s? There is an eternal difference between these two encounters.

Note that religion of whatever brand or label does not change people, because no religion of what ever label has any power to change anyone. Jeremiah was speaking of the customs of the people when he said in Jeremiah 10:5:

They are like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
And they cannot speak;
They must be carried,
Because they cannot walk!
Do not fear them,
For they can do no harm,
Nor can they do any good.”

All religions are just scarecrows in cucumber fields. They cannot do any good. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, a religion will never change you. If a sinner wants to break the chains of sin and be changed, then the sinner must abandon all religion and all works and commit themselves to Jesus with heart, soul, mind, and strength. Those who trust in Jesus will be changed. Those who cling to their religion will remain trapped in their cage of sin.

SDG                 rmb                 4/5/2021