Category Archives: Christian living

The Biblical Marks of Discipleship

One of the current needs of the church today is to recover the biblical concept of discipleship. Over the past generation the understanding of discipleship as being foundational to the mission and life of the church has been watered down. During the same period of time one can find many resources devoted to the topic. However, instead of being the foundational principle upon which the church should operate, discipleship has been relegated to just one ministry amongst many within the church. During this time, the church has unofficially adopted the strategy of running programs as being the necessary approach to building a healthy church. Hence churches have children’s programs, youth programs, evangelism programs, discipleship programs, and music and worship programs – amongst many others. This partitioning of programs has led people to see discipleship as just another program within the larger church with the effect that people see it as an option or preference. One person joins the choir, another goes to the discipleship class, but both are “active” in ministry. And while that may be so, as a result of partitioning the church into programs, the church is not fulfilling the great commission.

Before Jesus ascended to the Father he made clear the purpose of the church. Every gospel account and the book of Acts communicates some version of the Great Commission. The most explicit enunciation of the Great Commission is found is Matthews’s gospel. Their Jesus said,

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matthew 28:18-20, NKJV).

From this text it is clear that the Great Commission is not limited to evangelism. And while the church has always understood that the Great Commission is a command to lead people to Christ, it has not always embraced the equally important aspect of this command to lead people to grow in Christ as disciples.

The word disciple literally means “a learner.” That aspect of discipleship is clearly articulated in Matthews’s account. However, when one takes a larger view of scripture it becomes clear that a disciple is a learner who follows his/her teacher. When Jesus first called his disciples, he did not call them to simply be students. He called them to follow him (Matthew 4:19). In addition, this was a call to begin a new way of life where following Jesus took priority over everything else (Luke 5:11). In Matthews’s account of the Great Commission this idea of discipleship is the primary emphasis of the command. While Jesus was clearly commanding the church to do evangelism, this was to be done under the wider scope of making disciples.

This idea is further communicated in the book of Acts chapter eleven. Several years after Christ gave the command to make disciples, the church in Antioch was sending Paul and Silas out as missionaries. During this period Luke records that “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (vs. 26). Of significance is that the term “Christian” was not an identification the church gave itself. The word came from those who were hostile to the church. It was essentially a pejorative name given by the enemies of the church to identify those who were actively (and antagonistically in the minds of non-believers) following Christ. The early disciples were so effective in following Christ by both leading people to Christ, and teaching them to also follow Christ, that the non-believing community took notice. Hence a “Christian” was known as one who followed Christ in such a way that non-believers knew who they were by what they were doing in Jesus’ name. In addition, immediately after Pentecost when Peter preached his first sermon, the church did not simply preach for people to accept that Jesus was the long awaited for Messiah, but after their confession of faith, the apostles began the process of teaching the church to effectively follow Christ (Acts 2:42). Later as the church matured, and even came under intense persecution, these Christians “went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Their training as disciples led them to publically follow Christ as they both proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior, and led others to do the same.

The very heart of the Great Commission, then, is to make disciples who, in turn, have made it their purpose to follow Christ by making disciples. If there is one biblically legitimate “program” for the church, then, it is to make disciples who are, themselves, disciple makers. Discipleship was never meant to be found in the backwaters of the church’s calendar. It is the very purpose for which Christ created his church. A church that is not making disciples is not obeying the Great Commission. In addition, based on Acts 11:26, one might argue that a Christian is not one who simply believes that Jesus in the Messiah (after all the demons believe, James 2:19) but one who has made the commitment to be an active follower (disciple) of Jesus (cf. Luke 9:57-62). The main purpose for the church’s existence, then (according to Jesus), is to lead people to effectively follow Christ (cf. Eph 4:11-12).

If making disciples is the essence of the Great Commission, and the very purpose for which Christ created his church, then it is important we understand the specifics of what a disciple looks like. In what follows I want to outline the biblical marks of discipleship.

  1. As noted above, a disciple is, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus. Some might argue that believing in Jesus should be the first mark of a disciple. And while it stands to reason that belief in Jesus is of paramount importance (cf. John 3:16), it can be argued that belief in Jesus does not always lead to true salvation, let alone rise to the level of making one a disciple. Consider Matthew 7:21-23 where “believers” in Jesus are condemned (also note James 2:19 where demons are said to be believers!). When Jesus called his first disciples the call was unequivocally to “follow” Jesus. While it can be argued that they had a nascent belief that Jesus was the Messiah, it is clear that their belief in Jesus was incomplete. It took several years of following Christ before they had a true appreciation for, and what we might call a developed belief system concerning, the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah.
  2. A disciple is one who learns to follow Christ. The very definition of the word means to be a learner. However, the biblical context reveals that this learning is similar to what we today call On the Job Training. Learning happens in the context of following. And while Jesus taught the multitudes, for those who were following, he also demonstrated what he taught. Their learning was experiential. The disciples were effectively apprentices under Jesus. A cursory reading of Luke chapters nine and ten reveal that Jesus told the disciples what he wanted them to learn; he then demonstrated to the disciples what that looked like; finally he sent them off to do what he already showed them. What is a disciple to learn? This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start:
    1. They are to learn what the Master is doing, then do those things (John 14:12)
    2. They are to learn the teachings (doctrines) of scripture (Acts 2:42; Heb 5:12-13)
    3. They are to learn obedience to the Word (Luke 6:46, 1 Peter 2:1-3)
    4. They are to learn the will of God (Rom 12:1-2)
    5. They are to learn to live a life pleasing to God (Col 1:9-11)
    6. They are to learn to live holy lives (1 Peter 1:16)
    7. They are to learn to live a life of repentance and self-denial (Luke 9:23)
    8. They are to learn to share their faith (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, John 20:21; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15)
    9. They are to learn to use their spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-8; Cor 12:4-27)
    10. They are to learn submission to the leadership of Christ (John 14:23, Psalm 2)
    11. They are to learn to worship (John 4:22-24)
    12. They are to learn to pray (Matt 6:9-13)
    13. They are to learn to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
    14. They are to learn to love others, even their enemies (Matt 5:43-47; Rom 13:8-10)
    15. They are to learn to give and be generous (Luke 6:36; 1 Cor 16:2; Phil 4:10, 15)
  3. A disciple is one who employs what he learns as a new way of life (Mark 4:24-25; Luke 6:46-49). This means he takes what he learns and puts it to use. He lives the truth (James 1:22-25; 2:14-17). In Matthew’s version of the Great Commission Jesus made this clear when he said we are to “Observe” all things he has “commanded” us. The Greek word we translate observe is tereo, and it means we are to pay careful attention to Jesus’ commands. We are to guard against not doing those things. We must make it our priority to obey, follow, and do those things he has instructed.

While the above list is not exhaustive, it reveals the true function of a disciple. I think a good working definition of a disciple can be stated as: A disciple is one who actively and obediently follows Christ into a new way of life in the context of the church for the purpose of making Christ known amongst the nations. It’s the last part of this definition we often lose sight of. Christ created the church to be a witness to his life, death, and resurrection so sinners can know the gospel and be saved. The church does not exist for the pleasure of its members, but for the glory of its King (Rev 19:16). Further, as someone once said, “The church is the only institution created for the benefit of its non-members.” Indeed, Christ did not come to “be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And he said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

The program of the church is defined by the command to make disciples. This should and must be the church’s first priority. While there are many good things the church can do as disciples, it is a certainty that if the church is not making disciples it cannot do the one thing, indeed the very thing, it was created to do.

 

Advertisements

A Very Real Power

I was thinking lately about the power of language. As I thought about how God used the spoken word to create the universe I was struck by the reality that there is great power in our use of language. It is something we often take for granted. God said, “Let there be….” and the world and all that is in it came bursting forth into existence.

We cannot create a universe, but we can create divergent realities with our language. Think about the power words have over children when they are still learning. What is said to that child can determine the course of his or her entire life. Think about how criticism can break a person emotionally and psychologically. Conversely, think of how a word timely spoken can redirect the course of a person’s entire life in positive ways. Words are more than just ideas verbalized. They are a form of power that we wield every time we open our mouth. As such we are to use our speech in ways that honor God and direct people to the path of life.

The Bible has much to teach us about the use of our words:

  • “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).
  • “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4).
  • But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:8-10).
  • “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
  • “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (Proverbs 4:24).
  • “What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:12-14)
  • Jesus said, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11).
  • The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (Proverbs 10:11).
  • “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
  • “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue” (Proverbs 17:4).

That’s just a sampling. It appears that God is very concerned with how we talk.

Our ability to speak is a product of being created in his image. Speech did not evolve over time. It was given to us because we are created in his image. When we speak we are exercising that great privilege of utilizing an attribute of God. Either we use it for his glory or we misuse it and bring dishonor and shame to his name. Every time we speak we have the ability to reflect him back into the world. When used correctly, we can speak life into people. When misused we can tragically speak both death and chaos into people’s lives.

When God speaks, he speaks life. Think of Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb. How did he do it? He called his name and commanded him to rise. The result? A dead man rose again and walked out of his grave after being there for four days. In Ezekiel 37 God gave the prophet a vision. He was brought into a valley filled with dead people – only skeletons remained. The prophet looked and noticed that the bones were old and dry. God then asked him a question: “can these bones live?” God told the prophet to speak to the bones. Life was breathed back into them. The bones came together. The bodies were recreated. Life was given. It was no longer the valley of dry bones.

God seeks to give life away. He has given us the ability to give life by using our speech the way he does. While I cannot go into a graveyard and raise the dead, I can give the words of life to those who are dying around me, and I can see them brought back to life.

God is the author of life. He delights to give his life away – and to give it away in abundance. He delights to raise the dead. He proved this through the death and resurrection of Jesus. He created people to enjoy his life. And he saves people so they can freely and joyfully give his life away too. We have great power, the power to give life. All we have to do is speak the words of God, and we will see God’s power flow through our words imparting his life, love, and truth – transforming them as did the prophet in the valley of dry bones.

To this end we must never gossip, slander, or accuse another. We must never attack and tear down through criticism and discouragement. We must never be self-righteous fault finders. We must not be name callers and mockers. Even if we think the things we say are true. This type of speech is violent in nature. The outcome is always painful and leads to a form of death in the ones to whom it is directed. If we must confront someone (at times it is vital and necessary) it should be done in a way that teaches and corrects. We must seek to always turn people to Christ. When Jesus confronted the woman at Jacob’s well he revealed her sin, but did so in a way that made her crave his words. Her life was changed – because even when confronting her sin, he spoke words of life to her.

Words that speak death never cause healing and never imparts life. It may feel satisfying for a moment to speak with violence to another. But, in the end those words will be turned back on ourselves. That’s why Jesus said, “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). If we speak words of death and chaos it’s because we have those things in ourselves. Thankfully we can repent. Even from the depths of death God’s words of life can reach us and bring healing and life back to us.

We should consider, though, that our words have the ability to reveal our spiritual identity. We all fail every day, some days worse than others. But, every day reveals patterns of behavior. Do we normally speak life into those around us, and only occasionally, through sin, speak in violent ways that produce death in others? – and then repent because we know we were wrong? Or, do we normally speak words of death and only occasionally speak words of life to others?

We must consider carefully the use of our words. Jesus said we will give an account for every careless word we speak (Matthew 12:36). If we live a life of repentance, then every careless word we speak will already be accounted for on the Day of Judgment. But, if we know nothing of repentance (a good sign we speak words of death), then in giving our account, we will come to understand why we are condemned.

  • What do our words reveal about our spiritual identity and what do they reveal about our eternal destiny?

Thankfully we can call upon Jesus and be healed and forgiven of our sin; and we can be assured of an eternal life filled with his abundant life in us and flowing through us to those around us.

Speak life and live.

My Brother

“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).

The other day someone made the statement to me, “We are brothers.” What he meant was, we are fellow believers, and as a result there is a relationship between us grounded in Christ. I agreed and we gave the appropriate man hug with the hit on the back, and then we went our separate ways. This morning while doing my quite time I read the above verse. Jesus raises an interesting point concerning our relationships in Christ. He seems to limit them.

Jesus’ family came looking for Him. His mother and brothers were attempting an intervention. Mom found the brothers and convinced them to put a stop to what Jesus was doing. I think they thought He lost his mind and they were seeking to “speak” with Him about His ministry. His reply is almost shocking. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He asked. The normal reply would have been, “Those guys out there with the little old lady who are waiting for you.” But instead Jesus points to those who are actively following Him and says, “Here are my mother and brothers!” He then defines that relationship with great specificity. He says, in effect, “Those who are doing the will of God are those who are my kin.”

Jesus seems to be limiting our relationships in Christ to those who are in fact doing the will of God by following Him. A brother in Christ is limited to those who are traveling down the same road with Jesus. A brother (or sister) in Christ is not one who simply believes in Jesus, then goes their own way. Nor are they the crowd of people who followed Jesus because He healed them or made them a meal (cf. John 6:1-12; 26). There were many people who followed Christ to get something from Him. In John’s gospel He turns to a very large crowd of people who are following Him because he did something for them, and then makes a statement about eating His flesh and drinking His blood – and, wonder of wonders, most walk away from Him. Jesus isn’t interested in believers who are in it for their own benefit. He is interested in followers who do the will of God.

A person who believes in Jesus and then acts on that belief in following Christ are those who are first, in a relationship with Jesus; then, second, they are those who are our spiritual kin – our brothers and sisters in Christ. Many people claim belief in Jesus. And it is certainly the case that we are called to believe. But many who believe are not following. Jesus made some interesting statements in this regard:

  • “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
  • “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46).
  • “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26)

Following Jesus is doing the will of God. Notice those who claim belief, but Jesus points out that they are not doing the will of God. Notice that others call Him Lord, but he says, despite that claim, they are not doing what He tells them to do. He then says, a servant MUST follow him.

Many people want to claim some sort of relationship with Christ. They say to Him, “Lord, Lord.” But Jesus makes it clear that those who are in a relationship with Him are following Him. It behooves us to ask the question: Does my belief in Jesus lead me to follow Jesus? The answer to that question has eternal significance.

Do What?

Over the course of the last year I have heard several Christians dispense advice along these lines, “You have to do what is right for you.” I remember being a young soldier in 1990 and giving out the same advice to someone who asked me about a situation they were in. The advice has an appearance of wisdom. In every situation there are factors that only the person involved in can navigate; and only the individual can assess the consequences that will arise as a result of their choices. So, telling them to do what is right for them, i.e., what will benefit them the best, seems to be the right advice to give.

Before I came to know Christ, I saw myself as an isolated entity with no clear connections to the world around me. Sure I had family relationships, friends, and breathed the same air as those around me, but whatever I chose to do, in my mind at the time, had little impact on others and the world around me (in so far as my actions did not hurt others). That may be a bit of a simplification, but, like those around me, I made choices that I believed were best for me without giving much thought to anything else. But, when I met God, my perspective on life changed.

Before we meet God we are simply individuals trying to navigate this strange thing we call life. But, when we meet God, the purpose for life, and specifically our purpose for life, slowly becomes clear. As we grow in our faith and learn the Word of God, we begin to see our place in the world. Like our former life, we might conclude that our place in the world is small and insignificant. But, the conclusion we draw from that observation rapidly changes. Whereas before we concluded that what we did had little consequence, today, with our new life in Christ, we realize that everything we do reflects back to Christ. In the larger scheme of things I am insignificant, but I now realize that despite that reality God cares deeply about what I do. And what I do matters in His sight.

One of the amazing truths of scripture is that, despite the reach of my influence in the world, the God of creation has taken up residence in my life. The world has no idea who I am, but my Savior does. And while a simple action that appears to not affect someone else may lie before me, I am reminded that my actions, no matter how simple, does affect Christ. As we grow in our relationship with Christ we discover that we can either please Him, or we can grieve Him. I remember several years ago, shortly after I was saved, that a choice was placed before me. The choice was mine to make and would have had little impact on those around me. Because of my relationship with Christ I knew there was only one choice to make. Later, I heard the Holy Spirit speak to me. He said He was proud of me. He was pleased with the choice I made. That small choice had large ramifications for my spiritual growth.

Before I met Christ, dispensing the advice that “You should do what’s right for you” came naturally. The advice assumes that the person faced with a decision has only himself to think about. After meeting Christ I realized that I can no longer, as a follower of Christ, give that advice. I now know that the purpose for life in general is that we are all called to glorify God. The purpose for my life, specifically (and yours too), is to live a life pleasing to Him. As I please Him, He is glorified. We please Him when we obey Him. And we please Him when we follow His will for our life.

His will for my life may not be His will for your life. But, one reality all Christian’s share is that we are all called to submit to His will. Many aspects of His will are general in nature. For example, we are all called to love one another. We are all called to forgive others. We are all called to abstain from sin. We are all called to share our faith. We are all also called to follow Him – daily. When we do follow Him, we discover that there are aspects of His will that pertain only to us. God called me to pastor a specific church. That’s a call only I can answer. His call on your life is a call only you can answer. But we are all called to submit to His will as we follow and obey Him.

As a result I can no longer “do what’s right for me.” I realize that no matter how insignificant I may be to the larger world around me, I am not insignificant to God. What I do matters in His sight. And since I am called to follow His will, I can amend the original advice to: “Do what’s right in God’s eyes.” As a follower of Christ, that’s the only legitimate advice I can give. As a friend, I can help another to discover what that might look like, but I can never regress to, “Do what’s right for you.”

Sometimes that can be hard. Doing what’s right in God’s eyes does not always seem to be what’s right for me. It may not be what I initially want to do. It may require that I sacrifice something I did not intend to sacrifice. It may mean that I have to own up to behavior I do not want to own up to. It may mean I have to forgive someone I don’t want to forgive. It may mean I must repent of certain sins. It may mean a whole host of things I simply don’t initially like. I suspect Jesus faced the same dilemma. Just before He was arrested, He was fervently praying to the Father, “Take this cup from me!” The cup he was referring to was the cup of suffering that lie just before Him on the cross. But, Jesus didn’t need to ask for advice. And He didn’t do what was right for Him.  He did what was right in the eyes of the Father. So, he submitted to the Father’s will and said, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

As Christians, that is the only way to live. And as brothers and sisters in Christ that is the only legitimate advice we can give.

Freedom

“Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17)

I remember watching Mel Gibson’s movie Brave Heart years ago. No one who watched that movie can forget the dramatic ending where, during intense torture, the main character cries out, “Freedom!” Freedom is a yearning within all people. Unfortunately, outside of Christ there is no freedom. Only He can bring the freedom our soul longs for. Sin enslaves all people. And religion without Christ cannot set a single person free. For those who strive to be free in the flesh, seeking freedom through religion, they will receive only weariness, toil, and disappointment. But, for those who come to Christ, a glorious freedom awaits them.

The true Man of the World comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. Satan seeks to lead us into the land of religion and ritual that is devoid of life. He creates rules and generates anxiety. He wants people to think of God as a heavenly IRS agent desperately seeking to find something wrong with you so He can smite you. He wants to create division amongst people by getting them to become suspicious of each other. He wants people to distrust each other, hate each other, judge one another, and hurt one another. He has done a good job. Lifeless religion has been the source of contention and strife for as long as history has been written. The reason there are so many different denominations is because there are no shortage of people hurling contempt upon others in the name of God. Fallen people are always looking for reasons to divide. It takes a spirit filled person to see imperfect people and, knowing they too are sinners in need of a savior, love them as Christ did.

Thankfully, Jesus came to give us the Spirit. He came that we may have life and have it abundantly.[1] He did not come to give us rituals, or generate anxiety by telling how we might fail. He didn’t come to tell us how some are better than others. He isn’t watching over us with a clipboard and writing down everything we ever did wrong. He didn’t come to show us a map and tell us what it is like in the land of the free – if we can make it. No, he came to bring us life – not just a description of it. Through the Holy Spirit, the life of Christ is freedom, and it is available immediately and forever for those who come to Him in Spirit and truth.

When Jesus prayed with His disciples he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Eternal life is knowing God. It is being, as the older divines said, in communion with God. Today we use a different term, but the meaning is the same. Eternal life is experienced when one is in a relationship with God through Christ.

The key words in Jesus’ prayer are “to know.” They are simple words communicating a profound truth. We can know God. This is the essence of what Christ came to give. Because of sin the door into God’s presence was shut. And it was shut in such a way that we could never, under any circumstance, open the door on our own. It could only be opened from the side of heaven. This is what Jesus did. And now with it open, there is nothing this side of heaven that can close it again. With the door open we can boldly approach the throne of grace. But, more importantly, through the open door God has come to us with His life. When Jesus removed our sin, God ran through the door and embraced His redeemed children with all His might. They were lost, but now are found, and He will not be deprived of them again. He has them in the palm of His hand. And no one can ever take them away again. Because He has them, they can know Him personally and forever.

Knowing isn’t hard. It doesn’t require a special degree. You don’t have to memorize certain words in languages long dead. You’re not required to stand in certain positions, or wear special clothes, or be in the right building at the right time, or in a special land. You just have to want to know Him. When you want to know God in truth, He will not leave you alone. Sure you’ll have to confess you’re a sinner. Sure you’ll have to ask for forgiveness. But, Christ has removed your sin and the Father is eager to forgive. And in confessing our sin we are liberated from the shackles that otherwise keep us chained in darkness, far away from God, dead in sin. With the shackles gone and God present, the darkness flees and His eternal, indestructible life fills us. In that instant we know God. We know Him in a way that words cannot adequately describe. But we know Him. And we are confident that we are known by Him.

Its only when one has experienced the embrace of God through Christ that one really understands what it means to be free. All throughout the New Testament we are introduced to this reality. In this chapter we are going to explore some of the ways that freedom can be experienced.

Freedom from Religion

Religion, as I define the term, is a functional system in which we operate and express our faith. As I mentioned in the opening of this book, I am not anti-religion. I recognize that our faith will be expressed in certain ways, especially as it relates to corporate worship. And I am all for public expressions of worship. The freedom I refer to is the freedom to live in God’s presence without the need to worry that I might have missed a ritual, or didn’t say a prayer in the right way, or didn’t dress right, or sung the wrong song at the wrong time, or am going to be struck down because I messed up, etc. etc. God did not come to give us rituals, rules, and regulations.[2] He came to give us His life. Instead of worrying about rituals and rules, we are given the freedom to love Him and walk with Him

There is a big difference between engaging in rituals because you think a deity might hear you and accept you, and daily walking with the living God who loves you, and, as Francis Schaeffer said, “Is there and is not silent.” God is not a rule book. He is a living being. His desire, indeed, the very purpose He created people, was to love them and be in communion with them. God wants to know you – really know you; and He invites you to know him as well. He promises that that relationship will never, ever, come to an end.

As far as rules are concerned, consider that the first and greatest commandment is that we are to love God above everything else in life.[3] The greatest “rule” God gave was for the purpose of revealing that we were created to know and love God. The rule is relational in nature. God gave the rule so we could know what He desires from us. He also gave the rule, because this reveals what we are lacking. And take note that the command to love God is stated in the positive. It’s the primary goal God has for our lives. Everything points to that reality. That one rule defines everything that God wants for us and helps us understand everything He has done for us.

Even the Ten Commandments point to it. But where the Greatest Commandment is stated in the positive, the Ten Commandments are all stated in the negative. They are stated in the negative because they reveal why we don’t love God the way we should. In short they reveal our sin. The Ten Commandments then, were not given as a stepping stone into God’s presence (do this and you’ll be good). They were given to reveal why we fail to love God and why we don’t have a relationship with Him. The Ten Commandments reveal that we love sin more than God. Therefore each commandment reveals a universe of reasons why our hearts crave something other than fellowship with God.

If the law does its perfect work, then, it does not make us good and therefore acceptable to God. We don’t get into God’s presence as a reward for obeying them. Much of our religion communicates this in subtle, if not in overt ways.  Indeed, the Bible makes it clear that obeying the law is not a possibility. Instead, it reveals how and why we have rejected God. The only way the law brings us to God is by revealing that failure, which then leads us to the cross where we see Jesus being crucified and judged in our place and for our sin. So, the only thing the law can successfully accomplish in our life is to help us understand why we are condemned, and then lead us to the One who can free us from that condemnation.

Once at the cross, recognizing and acknowledging our sin, and recognizing that we cannot get back to God on our own, He takes all of our sin and places it on Jesus who stood under judgment for that sin, and died in our place. He then takes Jesus’ perfect righteousness and gives it to us. Jesus never once sinned. He never broke God’s law. He was never, not in a relationship with God. He lived a perfect life before God. And once we confess Him as our Savior and Lord, God the Father then gives that perfect righteousness to us as a gift. With this done, God then invades our life as a loving Father who has been waiting to lavish us with His love and bestow His life upon us. Through Jesus we are reunited with our Father. Once reunited, we then live in His presence.

So, to review: The law reveals why we don’t have a relationship with God. It does not make us good in the eyes of God. Once we realize why we don’t have that relationship, the law then leads us to Christ where that relationship can be found. Once that relationship is received, the law has nothing more to do with us.[4] We are free from the law.

This is how God liberates us. Once we are enjoying God’s life within us, we are not bound by a religious system, or by religious rules in the hopes that we can “make it.” God has done everything for us so we can know him. It is profoundly simple. But the sad reality is that the religious systems we create can actually hinder our walk with God. There is a great example of this in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There we learn of an interesting episode that took place in the early church.

When Paul was visiting them he noticed a disturbing trend. There were a group of Jewish believers who had grown up in the Jewish legalistic system of religion. And though they had believed on Jesus for salvation, they were not willing to put aside their religious rituals or traditions. In addition, they also communicated in some way the need for others to uphold their religious traditions as well. One of these traditions taught that Jews did not associate with non-Jews for the fear that they will become ritually unclean. They apparently stressed that this was an important element of their religion to observe. So much so, that even the eminent apostle Peter became swept up by their influence. When Paul noticed what Peter was going, he publically confronted Peter and essentially told him that his actions were a denial of Christ. He charged these Jewish men with corrupting the gospel, and even called Peter a hypocrite to his face while calling him to repent – which he did.

Paul was upset because he knew this religious observance nullified the grace given through Christ. Paul clearly taught that we are either seeking to earn our salvation through such observances or we are resting in the salvation that Jesus earned for us. There is no middle ground. We either observe law as a means of salvation or we claim the finished work of Christ as a means of salvation. We cannot have a combination of both.

Paul wanted the church to know that they were not bound by such religious traditions. Instead of worrying about breaking the law of ritual cleanliness, Peter was free to associate with whomever he wanted – in fact, the gospel demands we associate with all people because the gospel destroys all such barriers.[5] Because of the gospel, there was no longer a valid command by God that dictated who Peter could or could not associate with. God is no respecter of persons. Peter could fellowship with anyone. His experience with Cornelius also taught Him the same lesson.[6]

Through this event we also learn that God does not limit His love to those who follow such religious observances. In fact, the book of Galatians teaches that such observances can actually train wreck ones relationship with God. The men who wrongly lead Peter astray were dubbed the Judaizers and charged with spreading a false gospel that can only destroy ones soul![7]

We must beware of believing that God shows people favor because of some religious ritual or custom. God shows favor only because of Jesus Christ. This means we are not bound by traditions and rituals. We are free to love God and live before Him.

This incident also reals that we are free from being judged by others in regard to religion. Where the Judaizers rejected people who did not observe the traditions as they did, Peter was reminded that God rejects no one who comes to Him in faith. And while we may develop certain traditions as expressions of our faith, we are never defined by them. Before Peter believed in Jesus for salvation, He was a practicing Jew. As such he was expected by others to observe the traditions of the elders. When he received salvation through Christ, God taught him that such things have no value in helping one come to God. The expectations of others were therefore only a hindrance in Peter’s relationship with God. As we have noted, such things can actually hurt ones relationship with God. The good news is that our relationship with God does not depend upon the judgment of others. It is solely dependent upon Christ.

Freedom from Condemnation

Because we are no longer bound by the law, we are also free from its condemnation. As already mentioned, the law can only accuse as it reveals our sin. It is powerless to generate righteousness within us. And while it is powerful to condemn, when one is in Christ, they are completely free of its grasp.[8] The Bible teaches that once a person confesses Christ, they are then removed from being under the curse of the law and are now free to live in the “newness of the Spirit.” When this occurs we are no longer under the letter of the law (don’t do… etc. etc.), but are now under “the law of the Sprit of Life in Christ Jesus” that has set us “free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).

This is an essential truth that is often neglected. And while we can easily affirm its truth, we often regress into an “I’m good because I did etc., etc.” attitude. Consider, if the apostle Peter can fall into that trap, and he spent three years with Jesus, then how much more can we? We often begin well, but like the Galatian church we fall away. They were seduced by convincing people who made much of their traditions. But Paul startled them with stunning question, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you…?” (Gal 3:1). Their seemingly convincing arguments were in fact an invitation to spiritual death!

We can prevent ourselves from falling into that trap if we will keep an important truth before us at all times. In Jesus Christ there is no condemnation. Period. The Bible says plainly, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). You don’t need to be able to read Greek to understand what that means! There is no condemnation to whose we are in Christ. Notice the important words, “In Christ.” This is the key. Once we come to Him we are “In Christ.” This means that His life is within us. It also means that we have been united with God through Him. The only way we could be condemned is if Christ was condemned. Once in Christ our life is inextricably bound with His. Whatever happens to Christ now happens to us. And, just in case you’re wondering, Christ cannot be condemned! In Christ we are free from all condemnation. With that freedom we don’t have to be married to the law and worry that something was left undone.

When Peter sinned by observing the ritual of staying away from “unclean” people, what he was doing was turning around and taking the hand of the law again. But, by taking hold of the law, Peter had to let go of the hand of Christ. A man can have only one wife. This is what Paul spoke about in the seventh chapter of the book of Romans. We either have the law as our spouse or we have Christ as our spouse. God does not allow a man to be married to both at the same time. He can have only one spouse. If the law is our spouse then we will always hear the voice of the law condemning us. But, if Christ is our spouse, then we will always hear the voice of the Sprit leading us in the life of Christ. And the spirit will never condemn us because of sin, He will always seek to free us from sin!

This does not mean that we will never fail, or be totally free from sin. The sad reality is that we will fail. The reality of sin will not be completely eradicated until the new heaven and new earth are established. At that point all sin and death will be forever exiled in the lake of fire. What makes all the difference in this life is the identity of our spouse. If we do sin, we are not given a pass to continue in it. Instead of being condemned by the law, though, we are disciplined by God through the Spirit. Make no mistake, God does not tolerate sin in the life of His children. Jesus died because of sin. But, instead of condemning us, He seeks to eradicate that sin from us. Instead of having the letter of law to condemn, we now have a loving Father to correct and discipline us as He conforms us into the image of Christ, whose life we now share

As a result, we are now free to live “In Christ.”

Freedom to live

Adam and Eve were created free. Unfortunately, they fell into sin with the tragic result that the entire race was enslaved by sin and plunged into death. But when Christ came, He broke those shackles and set us free forever. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Living before God is the most liberating experience we can have. The Bible teaches that we are created by God, for God, and we are accountable to no one but God. And while, as Christian’s, we work together for the glory of God, we are free from the judgment of all men. We are free to praise and worship God as we feel led. We are free to love God, and be loved by Him. We are free to speak with God when we desire. We are free to be led only by God. We are free to walk with God and enjoy His presence. We are free from deception. We are free from sin’s power. We are free from death’s grasp. We are free from Satan’s power. We are free to come in, and free to go out. We are free to proclaim truth. We are free to obey God when all others rebel. We are free to love others without the guile self-interest. We are free from self. We are free from the need to please others. We are free to please only Him. We are free from the stain of sin. We are free from guilt. We are free from anxiety. We are free from fear. We are free from condemnation. We are free from doubt. We are free from the restraints of religion. We are, in all aspects, set free and liberated. To those who are in Christ we are free to enjoy “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). And that liberty is His life.

One of the great pictures of the Bible is seen in the book of Revelation. For a brief second, John was given a glimpse of heaven. What did He see? He saw God on his throne, and before Him was an innumerable number of people and angels singing praises to God and to the Lamb. Heaven is the true land of free. Those souls were all worshiping God, not because they were told too, but, because in their freedom, there was nothing more glorious, joyful, and fulfilling; and there was nothing they would rather do. True freedom always ends in His praises on our lips, and the overflowing of His Joy in our hearts.

So, we have been set free, and all that is left is to enjoy His life forever. When we realize that we were created for God, and that we have been, in all respects, liberated by God, only then do we really understand what life is all about. The purpose of life is to know Him. In Him we are completely fulfilled. In Him we experience complete satisfaction. In Him there is “joy that is inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Once sin and fear have been removed, that glorious joy is ours for the taking.

To take it, all we need do is exercise faith. Faith is the hand that reaches for and takes hold of that freedom to live His life. Do you want to be free? Do you want the freedom of His life within you? All the religion in the world cannot unleash the power of God’s life within you. But, were religion fails, faith triumphs.

The true Man of the World, Satan, wants to keep you in the dark. He wants to prevent you from having the joy and freedom that are found in the life of Christ. To reject Satan all you need do is embrace Christ in faith. And to employ faith all you need to do is trust and believe. He will do the rest.

 

 

Questions for reflection:

  1. When has your relationship with God been stymied by the expectations of others?
  2. Has there been times when you were burdened with anxiety and fear believing that God cannot love you?
  3. Have you ever believed that unless you did certain things you cannot be accepted by God?
  4. Have you come to see that Satan lies to us and seeks to prevent us from enjoying God’s life?
  5. Do you believe that God’s life is free for the taking by exercising faith?
  6. Do you believe that Jesus has done everything needed to free us?
  7. Are you enjoying His life today? If not, why not?

 

[1] John 10:10

[2] I recognize that the OT is filled with regulations and rules – 603 of which are civil and ceremonial in nature. Those were not meant to be normative for all people at all times. They were limited to the children of Israel for the purpose of separating them from the surrounding pagan nations. The Ten Commandments certainly apply today as being foundational for understanding the moral nature of God. In that regard the NT teaches that that through the law comes the knowledge sin (Romans 3:20). And we are further taught that those who are under grace and walk in the Spirit do not need the law. The law reveals our sin and teaches us, but when one is in Christ they are no longer judged by the law. Therefore, our lives are not governed by rules that must be observed. Rather, our life is lived in the Spirit.

[3] Deuteronomy 6:4; Matthew 22:36-40

[4] I am not advocating for antinomianism. I simply mean that once we come to Christ, the law has served its purpose in our life. If we sin after coming to Christ, the Spirit will rebuke us and grieve us. We will not be condemned by law at this point, instead we will be disciplined by our loving Father (Hebrews 12:7-8).

[5] Ephesian 2:11-18

[6] Acts 10:9-11:18

[7] Galatians 1:8-9

[8] Romans 7:1-6

The Great Deceiver, Chapter 2: The Battle for Freedom

“Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17)

One of my more memorable experiences was when I first left home after high-school and joined the army. After processing through the MEPS station and then traveling to Ft. Benning where I was to attend basic training, I soon found myself surrounded by a group of young men my age. Before long we were greeted by a raving mad drill sergeant who made it known how happy he was to see us. After we were called to attention, the drill sergeant made it clear who was in charge. I will never forget the young solider in front of me. His whole body was shaking with such violence that I thought he was going wet his pants.

I think that for most people my age being confronted with such aggressive authority was something most of us had never experienced. We all grew up in a very permissive society. We are accustomed to living in a society that puts much emphasis on individual liberty. We do not like restrictions placed upon us. We all agree that our society should be guided by the rule of law, but are not too upset when those in authority bend the rules from time to time. However, when we stood before the drill sergeant that day we all received a crash course on military authority. We learned that it is complete, covering every area of our lives.

When Desert Storm broke out, the unit I belonged to at the time was locked down for a special mission were we to invade Iraq. Thankfully our armies stopped at the border and my unit was not sent in for the mission. But, while we were waiting we stayed busy training for the upcoming mission. I was a lowly private at the time and I will never forget a comment made by our squad leader. He pointed to me and another private and said, “If I tell you to take off your gas mask, and you don’t do it, I’ll shoot you myself!” Certainly there was some tongue-in-check in his comment. But, the realization that life and death matters concerning me were in the hands of others became a reality. Others could order me to perform a task that could result in my death, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was a scary moment for me, and for others who were facing the reality of military life during a time of war.

That was the first time I was confronted with my mortality, and I did not like it. But, it was also the first time I began to understand the reality of what a compelling authority looked like, and I did not like that either. For most people in our culture the idea of authority is good in theory, Continue reading

The Great Deceiver, Chapter 1: The Battle for Truth

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3)

I remember the first time I was pulled over for a speeding ticket. I was in high school. I will never forget how my heart leaped into my mouth when I saw those flashing lights behind me. The officer was not interested in having a conversation, “License and registration please” he said dryly. It was not a pleasant experience. Those radar guns have a nagging way of telling on you. Special pleading does not help. He walked back, gave me the ticket and told me to slow down. My parent’s insurance company was, no doubt, not interested in special pleading either. Pay up or ride your bike.

Life is like that. No one really complains that a police officer pulls over teenage kids driving too fast. In fact, most people are grateful for that. Kids need to learn to drive safe; and that means learning to drive by the rules, speed limits included. I’m still a student.

Radar detectors were invented to speak truth when otherwise the truth would be clouded by all the excuses inventive teenagers can muster. Unfortunately for the kid driving, the speed limit is not a suggestion, it’s the law. Black and white. You either comply or you break it. When you break the law, you pay the piper.

But, while no one today would argue with an officer about the legitimacy of a radar’s ability to accurately track speed, many people, most really, want to argue that there is no such thing as truth that should guide how we live. There are opinions, and various points of view but nothing as solid as Truth by which real things can be defined. The sad reality is that this is accepted as perfectly normal today.

I don’t know when people began to accept this en mass, Continue reading