Saturday, November 2, 2013

At the Core of the Gospel and Salvation: God’s Love

It is because God so loved the world that He sent His Son to die for us! If we fail to see this truth at the core of all His Being and doings, we will miss out!

One young man was missing out. Terrified at the prospect of going to hell, he took a radical step. He forfeited everything he had by becoming an Augustinian monk, convinced that this was the surest way to please God and to merit salvation. However, even after this radical move, he remained tortured by thoughts of hell, lacking any assurance of God’s love.

He subjected himself to the most extreme deprivations along with four hours of daily confessions, but nothing relieved him. Finally, his vicar advised him:

  • Luther, all you need to do is to just love God!

To this, he bellowed back, “Love Him? I hate Him!” He later wrote that He couldn’t love God, if he couldn’t be sure that God loved him back and would receive him into heaven. However, years later, while preparing a lesson on the Epistle to the Romans, Luther encountered a verse that would change his life: “And the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). He suddenly realized that he didn’t have to earn God’s love. Instead, it was there waiting for him. He just needed to take it in faith.

Luther later wrote that it felt as if the gates of heaven had opened for him. He was now enabled to trust that God loved him. Let me guess what you’re now thinking:

·        This assurance of God’s love is miles away from me. Sometimes I wonder whether this assurance is even possible for someone like me who doubts and questions.

Certainly, there are many reasons to doubt and question. While the Bible gives us many assurances that God is love, there are also a number of verses that make it seem like His love is conditional and we have to fulfill a set of impossible conditions. Take, for instance, Hebrews 12:14:

·        Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

This verse, among others, is a doubt-producer. Here are some of the doubts it might produce:

·        How holy must I be? It doesn’t seem that any of my thoughts, motives or deeds are entirely holy. They are all sin-infested.

·        Is there a certain level of holiness that I must attain before I can be saved? This verse says that holiness is about me and my performance and not God’s gift to me. That’s why it says “make every effort!”

·        Isn’t the Bible therefore a collection of contradictions?

Can we truly be confident of the grace of God when these questions remain unanswered? Not entirely! Consequently, I think that we need to take a deeper look at Scripture.

Jesus’ actions didn’t often look like love. He continually criticized His own disciples. At times, it seemed that they couldn’t do anything right. He commended faith only twice in Scripture, and on both occasions it was the faith of Gentiles – the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:28) and the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:10) – never of His disciples. He never told them anything like this:

·        You men are really first class. Choosing you was the best thing that I had ever done. You’re such quick learners and, oh, so spiritual!

Jesus never encouraged them – not exactly the way to win and sustain a following! Rather than building their confidence in their heavenly destiny, many of Jesus’ teaching served to undermine their confidence. However, after His final discourse with His disciples, Jesus prayed to the Father. This prayer illuminates a different perspective, a heavenly one! And this is as it should be, because Jesus is no longer addressing His disciples but His Father:

·        "I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” (John 17:6-8)

Perhaps you’ve read these verses too often to notice their transcendent perspective. These words do not represent Jesus’ usual words of censure like “get behind me Satan” or “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" (Matthew 26:40).

Instead, Jesus words are other-worldly. About His fumbling disciples Jesus prays, “they have obeyed your word…they accepted [the words You gave me]. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.”

These words are astounding and perplexing. From our earthly perspective, they didn’t even understand His Word, let alone obey His Word! Just to illustrate this point, I will quote each one of their five preceding statements. All of these words demonstrate their lack of understanding:

·        Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" (John 14:5)

·        Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us" (John 14:8), unaware that they had already seen the Father in Jesus.

·        Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" (John 14:22)

·        Some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,' and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" They kept asking, "What does he mean by 'a little while'? We don't understand what he is saying." (John 16:17-18)

·        Then Jesus' disciples said, "Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God" (John 16:29-30), but they were just about ready to disown their faith

These ignorant statements weren’t unusual for the Apostles. They often seemed clueless about their Master, and Jesus wasn’t hesitant to let them know this. However, when Jesus talked to His Father, we perceive a different perspective. From these heights, we are invited to view an entirely different landscape, one through which we learn that the disciples “have kept Your Word!” This is the gracious heavenly reality.

You might think that this distinction between the earthly message and the heavenly one is just a weird anomaly. However, this same distinction is found throughout Scripture. Let me just take a few examples.

The prophet-for-hire Balaam had also been granted a view from this same mountain-top. He had been hired by the King of Moab, Balak, to curse Israel. However, God had warned Balaam to say only what He would reveal to him. God had opened his eyes so that he could penetrate the haze and see reality from the perspective of God. And this is what he saw:

·        The oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened: "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:4-5)

·        "He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel. The LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a King is among them.” (Numbers 23:21)

There was probably little that was “beautiful” about Jacob’s tents, especially after wandering 40 years in the desert. Balaam was beholding a transcendent reality. Clearly, there was gross “iniquity in Jacob” and no shortage of “wickedness in Israel,” but this is not what God was seeing! He sees a different reality, a transcendent one. He sees the end from the beginning. Jesus also saw His Apostles in their glory, a glory where we are already seated in “the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephes. 2:6).

In the eyes of our Lord, our status is dramatically transformed when we repent of our sins. When we do so, we are transported into the kingdom of His beloved Son, where we sit “the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” We become His vessels of glory.

Job had made many rash indictments against God during his lengthy trial. However, God brought damning charges against Job’s three friends:

·        "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." (Job 42:7-8)

This is peculiar for many reasons. For one thing, Job seemed to have talked far worse of God than had his three friends. Second of all, God, against the evidence to the contrary, said that Job had spoken correctly of Him! Clearly, this wasn’t accurate, or was it? From God’s heavenly perspective, Job had just repented twice of his rash words (Job 42:6; 40:4-5), and all had been forgiven. Job had also been cleansed of all his unrighteousness (1 John 1:9), and that made all the difference in the world!

There is the heavenly perspective that transcends the temporal – all of our this-worldly failures and sins. God does not see as we do. While He is not blind to the earthly, He sees a high and eternal reality, one in which everything is wiped clean, where love and righteousness remove from sight everything that makes us cringe in shame.

Lot lived in Sodom and willingly partook in its life. When the two angels showed up to investigate Sodom’s sinfulness, Lot hurriedly rushed them off to his home, hoping to dispatch them early in the morning, without consequence to his town.

Every step of his life had been soiled by compromise. He even got drunk and had sex with his two daughters. However, this isn’t the final word about Lot. In the New Testament, we find that, in God’s eyes, Lot was regarded in an entirely different light, as “a righteous man” (2 Peter 2:7).

The Bible speaks of two distinct realities. According to the first reality, we have fallen short of God’s standards (Rom. 3:23) and deserve condemnation (Rom. 6:23). However, there is another reality that trumps the first one. It is a reality where “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” according to James 2:13. It is a reality where we are new creations in Christ – children of the light, where any who call upon God shall be saved (Rom. 10:13)!

From a human perspective, Abraham had been a spiritual failure. He continually doubted God’s promises. Even after Yahweh appeared to him and promised that Sarah would give birth to the promised son in the following year, Abraham once again wimped out and passed off his beloved as his sister.

Consequently, the unknowing king grabbed Sarah for his harem. However, before he could have sex with her, God struck the entire nation of Gerar down with a disease. He then appeared to the king in a dream and instructed him to return Sarah to her husband Abraham.

The shocked king then confronted Abraham about his deception. Abraham admitted his cowardice:

·        "I said to myself, 'There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.' …And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother." ' " (Genesis 20:11-13)

Abraham’s unfaithfulness had a long history. In spite of this, when God had appeared to the king in his dream, He uttered some of the most profound words in all Scripture:

·        Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die." (Genesis 20:7)

Even after Abraham had disgraced God so thoroughly, God remained faithful. Despite his failings, Abraham remained His “prophet!” Besides this, the cowardly failure Abraham would have to pray for the king!

The king might have thought, “What kind of God is this that chooses such low-life as prophets!” However, God’s love and protection for his failing prophet did not falter.

God does not see as we see. He sees us through gracious eyes. We often fear that we lack enough faith to be saved. However, Hebrews 11 – it’s know as the “hall of fame of faith” – gives us unbelievable portraits of exemplary faith. But if we read closely, we will be shocked at what we read.

Hebrews tells us that by faith “Abraham was enabled to become a father” (Heb. 11:11). However, it didn’t seem that he had much faith. We are also told that “By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger (Heb. 11:27). However, the original account tells us that Moses did fear!

My favorite example of faith regards the children of Israel:

·        By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. (Hebrews 11:29)

This is incredible! Israel was anything but a model of faith. The original Exodus account tells us that they rebelled against Moses after they heard the Egyptian chariots approaching!

From an earthly perspective, Israel was a sorry mess, but not from God’s gracious perspective! Here’s a glimpse into His thinking:

·        But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:8-10)

God’s logic is both illuminating and persuasive. If He was willing to pay the supreme price for us, when we were yet sinners – His enemies – wouldn’t He protect His investment now that we have been made His friends!

Perhaps an analogy might help. If you go to the junk-yard and purchase a decrepit Model-T Ford for an exorbitant price, and then spend the next several years restoring it to its original form, would you then discard it? Certainly not! You would now treasure it and do whatever you could to preserve it!

Our Lord paid the price for all humanity. Consequently, any who come to Him, He will in no way cast out (John 6:37). He even pursues those who refuse Him.

He pursued David, His King. David deserved only the worst from God. God had given David everything, but this didn’t satisfy David. He saw a woman he wanted, and he took her, even though she was already married. If that wasn’t enough, he killed Bathsheba’s husband to cover up his sin.

However, God was not going to be mocked. Sin would require a price. Despite David’s many prayer God took Bathsheba’s newborn. However, she conceived again, and David named his child “Solomon,” in Hebrew, “Shlomo,” a form of “Shalom” meaning peace. It seems that David was hoping that this child would spell peace between him and God. But how could David expect anything good from such a sin-stained relationship. However God had another name in mind:

·        Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and lay with her. She gave birth to a son, and they named him Solomon. The Lord loved him; and because the Lord loved him, he sent word through Nathan the prophet to name him Jedidiah. (2 Samuel 12:24-25)

David hadn’t been hopeful enough. Instead of Solomon being a peace child, he was “Jedidiah” (“beloved of God”) in God’s eyes. From an earthly perspective, David and his new wife didn’t deserve anything but punishment from God. However, He heard David’s prayer, forgave his sin, and cleansed the entire relationship. On top of this, out of all David’s sons, God chose Solomon to become the next king of Israel.

Paul, having hardened his heart, was even His persecutor. Not only did he kill Christians, but He also forced them to blaspheme Jesus. I cannot think of anything worse. However, Paul explained:

·        Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Tim. 1:15-16)

Paul served as an example of God’s readiness to extend His forgiveness to anyone – to the worst of sinners. If God was willing to forgive Paul, He was willing to forgive anyone who would come to Him!

King Manasseh was a prime example of God’s mercy. He was the worst of the worst. He reigned for 55 years in Jerusalem and bathed the city with the blood of the righteous. Scripture informs us that he was worse than the Canaanites. However, even Manasseh found the mercy of God, when he repented of his sins (2 Chron. 33:10-13).

The meaning is clear. If God forgave and restored Manasseh, the worst of the worst, He would certainly respond favorably to any who would call upon His name!

Let me again guess what you are thinking:

·        Well, you make salvation seem as if it’s available to anyone who confesses their sins. But how about that verse you cited before which says “pursue holiness without which shall no one see God?”

Well, the Book of Hebrews illustrates what it means to pursue holiness through the example of Esau:

·        [See to it] lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it [the blessing] diligently with tears. (Hebrews 12:16-17; NKJV)

Esau wasn’t rejected because of his sins – we are all sinners. He was rejected because he was unwilling to repent that he had sold his birthright for a bowl of soup, demonstrating that he did not esteem the things of God. Although he wept over loosing his father’s blessing, the things of God were mere foolishness to him.

How does God regard us? We lack the superlatives to answer this question. Paul wrote of the love of God this way:

·        I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephes. 3:17-19)

God’s love for us is a love that “surpasses knowledge.” Why then can’t we see this? Why does our God obscure this glorious reality, causing us to walk in uncertainty? Perhaps we are not ready for the light. As Jesus told His disciples, there were certain truths that would not yet be good for them to see:

·        "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” (John 16:12)

We too cannot bear to behold the beauty of the tents of Israel and certainly not our own glory. I think that it was C.S. Lewis who said that if we could see our glory, we’d worship each other.

However, sometimes He does open our eyes to glimpse this transcendent reality. For example, Paul claims that for those who are being saved, “we are…the [sweet] aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15). This is amazing to us! How can we, with all of our spiritual warts, manifest as the aroma of Christ!

However, we can’t handle this light in sustained doses. We lack the mental maturity to assimilate this light in a profitable way. In the midst of a life-threatening and bloody chain saw injury, I was lying in a pool of blood, thinking that this breath would be my last. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t alone. I was so overcome by the presence of God that I was in ecstasy. I knew that even if I died, God would be there with me, and that I was totally safe and loved by Him.

I was miraculously rescued and spent the next four days recuperating in the hospital. On the second day, my surgeon warned that I would have to exercise my half-cut-off wrist or lose its functionality. However, after my divine encounter, I was convinced that the God who had saved me was great enough to restore my hand without any exercises. Well, I didn’t exercise it, and it wasn’t restored as it might have been.

My theology – my understanding - did not measure up to what God had revealed to me. I had wrongly thought that since God is omnipotent, I didn’t have to do anything.  Now I understand that, although God is all-powerful, this doesn’t relieve me of my earthly responsibilities.

Perhaps even after imbibing all of these verses, you are still left with uncertainly about God’s love and your salvation. That’s certainly not unusual. Sometimes, even the knowledge of the Word will not take us everywhere we what to go, nor should it. God has not constructed our lives so that we would make ourselves self-sufficient though wisdom. Instead, we are always to depend upon lowly humble prayer – an acknowledgement that we and our wisdom are not enough. We need His intervention.

And He will intervene! When we ask our Lord for assurance about His love and our salvation, we ask according to His will and, therefore, can be confident that He will answer.     

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