THE NEXT STEP

Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. … This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5: 14b-15,17 (NLT)]

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. [Westminster Shorter Catechism]

waterfallIn writing about the Sinner’s Prayer yesterday, I wondered if, by saying it, a new believer gets the false impression that his responsibility ends with a prayer when, in fact, it has just begun! Justification takes only a moment but sanctification takes a lifetime. Addressing the guilt of our sins, justification is when, by the grace of God, we are made righteous through God’s grace and our faith. It’s as if we’re guilty criminals, standing in God’s courtroom, and God pardons us. Telling us our debt to society has been paid, He sets us free. While it’s easy to walk out of the courthouse, it’s not so easy to alter the behavior that led to our life of crime. Like any felon, we need to change our ways, which is where sanctification comes in. Rather than the reformation of a criminal, it is the transformation of a sinner.

Powered by our faith and the Holy Spirit, sanctification transforms our sinful character so we grow more and more like Christ. Focusing on the destructive power of sin in our lives, it gradually shapes our hearts, minds, and desires to those of God. Sanctification is the work part of our salvation and requires diligence in study, prayer, fellowship, witness and service. It’s coming to know Jesus, loving and obeying God, and letting both His word and the Holy Spirit convict us when we sin. It’s allowing God to work in and through us, not as a way to earn His blessings and favor, but because we delight in His will.

While holiness is the goal of sanctification, I don’t think any mortal can live a life completely free from sin in this world. Nevertheless, even though we can’t attain sinless perfection, like the Apostle Paul, we will continue to struggle against sin and temptation as long as we’re on this side of the grass. We persevere and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to grow more and more like Christ every day.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are coworkers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R.C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12b-13 (NLT)]

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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THE SINNER’S PRAYER

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [Acts 2:38 (ESV)]

anenome - Canada or meadowIn a book about evangelism I read, the author wrote of bringing a new believer into his office and the two of them saying the Sinner’s Prayer. After the new believer repeated the Pastor’s words, he was pronounced saved. While there is no official version, the prayer probably went something like this: “God, I know that I am a sinner and that I deserve to go to hell. I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I do now receive Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen.” Since many evangelical Christians speak of saying some sort of prayer like this at the moment of conversion, I wondered if a specific “Sinner’s Prayer” is a requirement for salvation.

If a special prayer is required, we should find it in the Bible yet, while we find lots of prayers, there doesn’t appear to be a prayer prerequisite for salvation. Jesus told the sinful woman who kissed and anointed his feet that her faith had saved her, the woman with the bleeding disorder that her faith made her well, and the blind men that their faith gave them sight. When the 3,000 were converted at Pentecost, Peter told the people to repent of their sins, turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. After hearing the gospel from Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized. After speaking with Ananias, Saul regained his sight and was baptized. While Peter preached the gospel to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his Gentile friends, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and they all were baptized. In none of these cases is there mention of a special prayer before conversion, asking for salvation or taking Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior. The people believed, repented, and were baptized. If a special prayer is required for Christ’s salvation, I’m pretty sure it would have been included in Scripture and it isn’t.

Nevertheless, it is Biblical to repentantly pray and ask for forgiveness; what’s not Biblical is to say salvation comes because of a prayer. Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith. We are justified by faith, not by works and certainly not by words. Even so, there’s nothing inherently wrong with praying some sort of sinner’s prayer at conversion—unless, of course, the person praying isn’t called by the Holy Spirit and genuinely repentant. When empty of faith, that prayer is meaningless and gives the person praying it a false (and dangerous) sense of security. Merely saying a version of the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t like purchasing an insurance policy guaranteeing salvation and eternal life. Even repeating dozens of prayers can’t save us. We’re not saved by the words of a prayer but by the genuine repentance and faith behind the prayer. As Christians, we don’t put our trust in words but in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

In actuality, since we’re all sinners, every prayer we say is a sinner’s prayer. Nevertheless, our faith, hope and assurance should not be in the prayers we say but rather in the God who hears our prayers.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. [Ephesians 2:8 (ESV)]

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. [1 Peter 1:8-10 (ESV)]

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GOOD PRIDE OR BAD?

The Lord detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished. [Proverbs 16:5 (NIV)]

peacockIf asked to list the seven deadly sins, we might not recall sloth or gluttony, but we’d probably remember pride. With few exceptions, when we find mention of pride in Scripture, it has a negative connotation. It refers to arrogance, conceit, disrespect, haughtiness, and effrontery and prideful people are called stubborn, insolent, willful, and selfish. Since Scripture makes it clear that pride is a sin, where does that leave us when we enjoy the satisfied feeling of a job well done or the pleasure of receiving praise? What emotion is appropriate when we have attained a goal or succeeded at a difficult task? What feeling can we share with someone who has achieved something extraordinary? If not pride, what?

It is a sense of pride (of wanting to do my very best) that makes me work so hard at my writing and I confess to feeling proud when I receive a compliment on my work. Moreover, I’m proud of the accomplishments of my children and grands and I’m not sure any of that is wrong. Since we find the Apostle Paul expressing pride and even boasting, it would seem that there can be a good kind of pride.

Good pride has a sense of worth and is earned through effort and hard work; sinful pride over-estimates its worth and is competitive by nature. Rather than doing its best, it just wants to do better than others. Good pride makes a realistic assessment of itself and sees its faults. Sinful pride, however, has an inflated ego blind to its faults; instead of self-esteem, it is more like a low regard for everyone else. Good pride, like the pride Paul had in the Corinthians and Thessalonians, encourages others because it isn’t threatened by their success. Generous, it takes satisfaction in others’ accomplishments. On the other hand, sinful pride discourages and demeans; selfish, it takes satisfaction only in itself. While good pride is humble, quiet and self-assured, the other arrogantly blusters and brags.

The biggest difference between the two prides, of course, is their relationship to God. Good pride sees the need for God and has confidence in His power but sinful pride sees no need for God (or anyone or anything else) and has confidence only in self. Good pride exalts and worships God. It takes no credit for God’s gifts and, if it boasts, boasts only of what God’s grace has accomplished. Sinful pride, however, exalts and worships itself, takes all the credit and sings only its praises.

Rather that two different prides, I wonder if there could be just one kind of pride that exists on a continuum: acceptable or good pride on one end and sinful pride on the other. After all, there must be a continuum for other sins. At some point, eating (which is not sinful) can move into over-eating and then onto gluttony (which is a sin). For that matter, at what point does admiration turn into envy, desire into lust, or chatting turn into gossip? Somewhere on those continuums, what’s acceptable becomes what’s not.

Let us be cautious then, of self-reliance and over-confidence, lest our acceptable (and humble) sense of pride imperceptibly slides down the line toward arrogance, conceit, and sinful pride. We must never forget that anything we’ve managed to accomplish in this world has been possible only because God has encouraged, empowered, equipped and sustained us.

Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry. [Romans 11:13b (NIV)]

Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else. [Galatians 6:4 (NIV)]

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COME IN AT THE GATE

Such people claim they know God, but they deny him by the way they live. They are detestable and disobedient, worthless for doing anything good. [Titus 1:16 (NLT)]

enter by the gateI’ve been reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I vaguely remember reading some of this 1678 allegory in senior English class but that time it was in the original Middle English (the language of the King James Bible) and difficult to read. Although I thought myself a Christian, I was unfamiliar with most of the biblical references and concepts. In reality, all I wanted to do was to get through it (along with Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses). With less pressure, more biblical knowledge, and an annotated modern version, I’m actually enjoying the tale of Christian: a man who leaves his home in the City of Destruction in search of the Celestial City.

Even without footnotes, I recognized the gate when Christian arrived there and understood Goodwill’s welcoming words: “In spite of everything people have done before they come here, we make no objections against anyone. No one will ever be driven away.” After warning him about other paths that are wide and crooked, Christian is told he can distinguish the right path because it is straight and narrow.

While on the path, Christian encounters two men who have climbed over the wall. Named Hypocrisy and Formality, they think they’ve found a short-cut to the Way. Hypocrisy, of course, is someone who puts on a mask and pretends to be what he is not. He acts the Christian in public but is an entirely different person in private. He may bring food to the needy on Sunday but beat his wife on Monday. Formality is the man whose religion is based on ritual and rests on outer form. Although he faithfully attends church, fasts, kneels, tithes, takes communion, and wears a cross, He’s only going through the motions. Neither man has a spirit of godliness or a relationship with Christ. With no true faith or repentance, they have built their lives on pride and pomp, appearances and rituals. Coming from the land of Boasting (Vain-Glory in the original), their religion is empty. Thinking that God is as impressed by external appearances as are they, the proud men are going to Mount Zion for praise: not to praise God but rather to be praised!

Satisfied with the appearance of godliness and unwilling to pay the cost of repentance, the two have taken the easy way by climbing over the wall. When Christian tells them that entering that way means the Lord of the Way will consider them thieves, they tell him to mind his own business; no one likes being confronted about their superficial professions of faith. When the men come to the hill called Difficulty, the narrow path leads straight up the hill. Seeing how steep it is, Formality and Hypocrisy choose the easy paths that seem to go around the hill while Christian climbs it. Having chosen the paths of Danger and Destruction, unlike Christian, those two will not reach the Celestial City.

This part of Bunyan’s tale hit home because we just finished a sermon series about the “cultural” Christian or what Craig Groeschel calls the “Christian atheist.” Like Hypocrisy and Formality, the cultural Christian believes in God but doesn’t know Him, lives as if He doesn’t exist, won’t recognize his deceptive and shallow faith, and follows laws and ordinances without following the Way. Bunyan’s is a cautionary tale as are Jesus’s words about the gate and narrow path. There are no shortcuts to salvation and the narrow road is not one of ease; nevertheless, the journey is worth it!

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. [Matthew 7:13-14 (NLT)]

I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! … Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. [John 10:1,9-10 (NLT)]

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WITHOUT THE CROSS, THERE IS NO CHRISTMAS

For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost. [Luke 19:10 (NLT)]

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Matthew 20:28 (NLT)]

I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark. [John 12:46 (NLT)]

St. NicholasEveryone loves Christmas—in fact, in our extended family it is our Hindu relatives who seem to make the most of this holiday with copious gifts, family get-togethers, peppermint bark, visits to and from Santa, cards, lights festooned around the yard, a beautifully decorated tree, wreaths, candles, and holiday attire. While driving through a nearby neighborhood famed for its decorations, I couldn’t help but wonder what sleighs, Rudolph, reindeer, trains, inflatable snowmen, igloos, teddy bears, toy soldiers, Disney characters, candy cane arches, icicle lights, meteor shower light shows and blow mold Snoopys and Grinches have to do with Jesus. Yes, there were a few blow mold nativities but even they were surrounded by gingerbread men and polar bears.

In our secular world, Christianity has little or nothing to do with many of today’s holiday traditions yet Christmas means nothing without the cross. Unfortunately, we’ve become so accustomed to the holiday stories, traditions, and decor that surround this day that many people have forgotten its true meaning. Sadly, like my Hindu extended family, some people neither know nor care about it

Christmas isn’t about presents, tinsel, ornaments, or even family and it certainly isn’t about the birthday of a great moral teacher. Jesus was not a righteous man who came to make the world a better place. He was God incarnate and He came to seek and save the lost. He came not to be served but to serve. He came to give His life as a ransom for all mankind. He came to bring light into the dark world and save it. Jesus said nothing about jingle bells, stockings hung by the chimney with care, or elves on shelves. As the Apostle Paul said: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” [1 Timothy 1:15] That would not have happened without the cross.

We are in the season of Advent: a season of both remembrance and anticipation. During these weeks, we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s first coming over 2000 years ago but we also prepare ourselves for His second coming, when He’ll return, not as a baby, but as a King. The first time, Jesus Christ came to save us; the second time, He will come to judge us. One of my little grands lost the Jesus from her nativity set. With all of the hoopla surrounding Christmas, let’s not make the same mistake with our lives. Just as there is no Christmas without that baby in the manger, there is no reason for the season without the cross.

Born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!” [Charles Wesley]

I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken. [John 12:47-48 (NLT)]

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ANSWERED PRAYERS – St. Nicholas – Part 2

He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” [Matthew 26:39 (NLT)]

Sometime near the end of the 3rd century, the Bishop of Myra died and a conclave was held to elect his replacement. St. NicholasLegend has it that the bishops kept praying and voting but could not come to an agreement. In a stalemate, they prayed all night for God’s guidance and He revealed how they should make their selection. They were told that the first person to walk into the church that morning would be the one God wanted to shepherd His flock. A young man was the first to come in the door and, when asked his name, he replied, “Nicholas, the sinner.” He was brought into the sanctuary and placed on the bishop’s seat. Nicholas, who would eventually become both saint and Santa Claus, was then consecrated the new Bishop of Myra. In spite of the odd manner of his selection, from what we know of Nicholas—his good deeds, wisdom, generosity, and deep faith—God seemed to know what He was doing.

When those bishops first got together to select the new bishop, I suspect each man had his favorite candidate and his prayers probably were that the other bishops would see the light and vote for his man. Busy telling God the outcome they desired rather than asking Him to reveal who He wanted, it’s no surprise the bishops came to an impasse. Once they agreed to ask God for His divine wisdom, their prayers were answered.

There’s no point asking God for His guidance, however, if we’re unwilling to accept His answer. Granted, selecting the first man into church seems rather strange but God knew who that would be. While there are variations in the story’s details, most agree that Nicholas was quite young and, while he was devout and well versed in Scripture and may have been a monk, he was unknown to the bishops and not a priest. Could some of the bishops have had second thoughts at that point? Here was an unknown entity: someone who’d never been deacon or priest, inexperienced in the church and its politics, who would now be in charge of deacons and priests, and on an equal footing with the other bishops. And what of young Nicholas? Many stories mention his hesitation at taking on such an undeserved honor. Nevertheless, both the young man and the bishops were obedient to God’s plan; Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra and history tells us he was the right man for the job.

Do we really think God needs our advice in running the world and our lives? When we pray, do we tell Him what we want Him to do and the outcome we desire or are our prayers open-ended, leaving the end result up to God’s will? God is not a cosmic vending machine and even He can’t please all the people all of the time. If I get every green light, then someone else is getting all the reds! We all can’t get what we want but we all can get what God wants for us! In Gethsemane, Jesus asked for release but He finished His prayer with acquiescence to God’s will. We must do the same in our prayers. When we say, “Thy will be done,” however, we can’t have the unspoken proviso of, “as long as I like Your answer.”

For me, the story of his ordination is the best part of the St. Nicholas legend and yet the saint plays a minor role in it. It’s a story of faith—faith in a loving and wise God, a God who answers the right prayers and a story of submission—submission to God’s will and the willing acceptance of His answer, strange as that answer may seem.

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:5-7 (NLT)]

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