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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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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SUZANNE FROM SINGAPORE

aster - nodding onion - deptford pinkWalk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. [Col. 4:5-6 (ESV)]

Revealing her roots with her English accent, Suzanne told me she lives in Singapore, is the CEO of a foreign corporation, and was taking a holiday at her beach home in southwest Florida. We had a few minutes before class started and, trying to find common ground, I asked if she had any children or grands coming to visit. Replying that her children were still single, Suzanne said she doesn’t much care for children and hoped to never have any grands. After telling me that a young family had recently visited her London apartment, she disclosed her annoyance at the small child who’d touched her priceless antiques and run across her valuable Persian rugs. When Suzanne added that she had no idea how anyone could host guests for more than a few hours without having full time staff, I realized how far her world is from mine and most of the other women present in the room. I’d have to dig deeper to find common ground!

Although dressed beautifully, Suzanne didn’t flaunt her wealth by wearing a Chanel suit, Manolo Blahnik heels, and Harry Winston diamonds to a lunch time Bible study. Her words, however, were equally as ostentatious. Clearly, she is a powerful wealthy woman who lives a privileged life but she seemed oblivious that most of the world doesn’t live her way. I think she would have been surprised to know that I’d just hosted guests for a week without having a maid or cook, that the elderly woman at the next table still works so she can pay for her health insurance, that the woman beside her has been single-handedly caring for her handicapped husband for the last eight years, or that the woman beside me is raising two grandchildren by herself.

While I’m pointing a finger at Suzanne, I’m also pointing three at me. My conversation with her made me realize how often I am unaware and insensitive to other people’s circumstances. Just as I assumed Suzanne would love small children, I often assume other people have the same politics, history, finances, family situation, interests and preferences that I do. Like hers, my words have been patronizing, oblivious, and tactless more times that I care to admit.

I thought about that conversation when reading Paul’s words about seasoning our conversation with salt. Salt makes food palatable and our words should be palatable to all who hear them. Suzanne’s insensitive words were heard by only a few Christian women at Bible study but what if they’d been heard by unbelievers who may not have been so forgiving? What if those unbelievers had judged Christians by her pretentious manner?

A popular piece of advice for speakers is to “know your audience” and businesses spend thousands of dollars in market research to do just that. This sage advice applies to us, as well. Let us remember that we are walking advertisements for Jesus; as His spokespersons, we must be respectful, tactful, kind, humble, and compassionate in our words. When we are finished conversing with people, they should feel that they heard something of value and, more important, that they are valuable both to us and to God.

They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel. [Carl W. Buehner]

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. … always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. [1 Peter 3:8,15 (NLT)]

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)]

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BLOOD AND GUTS

For the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible. [Leviticus 17:11-12 (NLT)]

sacred daturaFor most of us, the meat we purchase arrives at the grocery store prepackaged. We’re not used to seeing animals slaughtered, skinned or butchered and, unless we’re phlebotomists, rarely see large amounts of blood. As a result, much of Leviticus makes for rather gory reading since the temple, a place of worship, also served as a ritual slaughterhouse. Perhaps it’s my vegetarian sensibilities but, when the Bible refers to the pleasing aroma of sacrifice, I wince when thinking of the stench of dried blood and burnt meat.

Biblical sacrifices go as far back as Cain and Abel but it is in Leviticus that we read of the sacrifices God required of the Israelites. The book gives complicated instructions for each of the sacrificial rituals: everything from the kind of animal offered and the draining of its blood to splashing that blood around the altar and what to do with the meat. Nowadays, these bizarre rites seem sickening and gruesome. Then again, perhaps that is exactly what they were supposed to be even back then. Watching one’s best lamb have its throat slit and seeing its blood pour out was probably as awful 3,400 years ago as it seems today. Seeing the animal’s life offered as a substitute for the sinner’s symbolized the high cost of sin and could not have been taken lightly. Moreover, as offensive as all that blood and butchering seems, think of how offended God is by our sins! Sin is far uglier and more repugnant than any abattoir.

My 21st century self has difficulty understanding why blood had to be shed in the first place and how blood—something that stains—could ever be considered cleansing. Caught up in picturing all of that blood, gore and smell, it’s easy to forget that the reason for those sacrifices was atonement. The Israelites sacrificed what was precious to them to satisfy God as atonement for their sins. A price had to be paid for mankind’s sins and, without blood, there could be no forgiveness. For God, the aroma was not that of blood and seared meat but of repentance. Those bloody offerings, however, were temporary substitutes. Even though the animal died rather than the sinner, the sacrifice had to be repeated again and again. It is those sacrifices, however, that foreshadowed the one true and everlasting sacrifice that took place on Calvary. Our sins against a holy and infinite God required a holy and infinite sacrifice: the flawless lamb, Jesus Christ. Our atonement is now found in our faith in Christ—the one perfect and final sacrifice.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. [Hebrews 9:12-14 (NLT)]

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THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? [Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT)]

For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. [Mark 7:21-22 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneI recently saw a play in which the only character, Lisa, presents a monologue about her life and family. The audience learns that her father, Walter, a German-born Jew, escaped to the U.S. as part of the kindertransport effort but that the rest of his family perished at Auschwitz. During her monologue, Lisa tells of taking her then 75-year old father to visit the Auschwitz Memorial. While touring the concentration camp, Walter tells his daughter about attending school with members of the Hitler Youth. Being a Jew, he couldn’t wear one of their uniforms but another boy in his school, a Gentile, refused to wear one. Her father then tells her that, in spite of the horror of Auschwitz and the loss of his family, he is glad he was born a Jew—because he didn’t have the option of becoming a Nazi! Unlike the Gentile boy who refused to join (and suffered because of it), Walter realized that, had he not been Jewish, he might have joined the Nazis. He knew that part of him could have been as merciless and evil as the men who rounded up and exterminated his family.

After the war, Walter returned to Germany as an interrogator of German personnel. In her soliloquy, Lisa tells how he admitted to callously browbeating one prisoner into confessing that he’d rounded up Jews from the Ghetto. Rather than turn the prisoner over to the allies for trial, Walter handed him over to the Russians, men he knew would summarily execute the German in the woods. Perhaps Walter was right; in other circumstances, he might have joined the Hitler Youth.

Hearing this story made me wonder what darkness lurks in my heart. In other circumstances, could I spew hate, inflict pain, ignore my conscience, turn my back on my brothers and sisters, or close my eyes to evil? Could I ever be like Haman (who plotted to exterminate the Jews) or Abimelech (who killed his 70 brothers)? Could I have worn a Hitler Youth uniform? Sadly, in another time, in another place, perhaps my heart could have deceived me to do just that.

Just because I’m capable of evil, however, doesn’t mean I have to be evil. Rather than betray Jesus as did Judas, I could be as faithful as John. Rather than the closed minds and murdering hearts of those who stoned Stephen, I could be as holy and forgiving as the martyred man. While I could be as scheming and immoral as Herodias, I also could be as obedient and fearless as her victim John the Baptist. Yes, I could have joined the Hitler Youth, but I also could have refused to be part of such evil and willingly suffered the consequences.

There is something terribly wrong with our hearts that, if allowed to grow, can become horrendous and unthinkably evil, but there also is something beautifully right with them. We are made in the image of God; deep inside us there is something of Him and He has written his law in our hearts. He gave us the gift of free will and, with every choice, we either become more or less like the person God made us to be. Because our hearts can be deceitful, corrupt, and self-serving they can lead us astray but they don’t have to! When led by the Holy Spirit, our hearts can be so filled with good that there is no room left for evil.

For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. … Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. [Psalm 51:5,10-11 (NLT)]

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. [Galatians 5:22-24 (NLT)]

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