Do You Really Believe?

This question is admittedly rather open-ended, even if grammatically it requires only a simple affirmative or negative. Your logical response would be another question: “Do I believe in what?”  A belief about something, or confidence in a person (perhaps in oneself), is often what people are referring to when they speak of “faith”. But a faith that is more than a general or vague belief, one that is transformative and effectual, must have God as revealed in Christ as its object and basis.

God has indeed revealed Himself to this world in Jesus Christ, and we find the record of that in the New Testament scriptures. From the beginning of His ministry here among His people, Jesus presented Himself as the only proper object of faith, for the receiving of eternal life. The Gospel of John is filled with the Lord Jesus’ claims of being the Son of God, and alone worthy to be trusted in. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “Ye believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1).  We could multiply references, and they are all precious. In order to clearly exclude any other object as legitimate for faith to be placed in, Jesus told His disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit  down to earth after He went back to the Father, and that the Spirit would “bring demonstration to the world of sin . . . because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:8-9 JND).

We have just established from the Word of God that in order to gain eternal life, your faith must be placed in the Son of God, who came down from heaven to die for our sins and rose again on the third day. Refusing or neglecting to believe this simple gospel renders vain or futile any faith a person may think he has (I Corinthians 15:1-17).  Now if you do not yet have the assurance of possessing eternal life in your soul, please do take that simple yet momentous step right now: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ who came into this world to die for you. The change will be wonderful, you will become a new creation in Christ, and all things will become new and different for you.¹

In addition to presenting Christ as the proper object for our faith, we find one important qualifying adjective in the Word of God that is used when referring to personal “faith”.  For the most part, the Spirit has not seen fit to qualify faith, nor to speak much of it quantitatively (see Matthew 17:20), as if to emphasize the overarching importance of faith’s divine Object that is everywhere assumed in the Word. However, because there is a need to guard against a superficial or careless use of the term, the adjective “unfeigned” is used twice with “faith” by the Apostle Paul, once in each of his letters to Timothy.  I contend that one can only claim to possess eternal life if his faith is “unfeigned”, or sincere (I Timothy 1:5 and II Timothy 1:5).

We have some examples in Scripture of feigned or insincere faith, and I will mention just one of them briefly. Simon the sorcerer “believed also” when the people in that Samaritan city “with one accord gave heed” to Philip’s preaching of Christ (Acts 8:5-24). But notice there is nothing said of the Spirit falling upon Simon personally, and indeed, he is represented to us in the account as being just an opportunistic onlooker who gave in to covetous thoughts and words because of the miraculous evidence of the Spirit he saw in his countrymen.  Peter’s condemnation of the thoughts of Simon’s heart indicate that no conversion had taken place there:  “Thy money perish with thee . . . Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right with God . . . thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.”  Simon’s faith was proved to be counterfeit, and Peter possessed the spiritual discernment along with the apostolic authority that empowered him to condemn Simon for it. This same carnal impulse of professing faith because of miracles, rather than possessing sincere faith in Christ, is also addressed in John 2:23-25.

True faith is never the temporary impulse of the natural human heart; rather, it is a gift of God and a work of God², and is always accompanied by new creation life in the believer’s soul. The testimony of God’s Spirit with the believer’s spirit, and a desire in his or her heart to obey and to please Him³, provide abundant assurance of eternal life to the soul who has looked away from self to Christ in true faith.

 

¹  II Cor. 5:14-17   ²  Eph. 2:8; John 6:29; Phil. 1:6   ³  Romans 8:14-16; I John 2:5-8

The Road to Laodicea

The road from Philadelphia to Laodicea in the old Roman province of Asia could have been traversed in a couple of days on foot.  Much of the way would have been upriver, but morally, it was all downgrade. That is, if the spiritual state of the assemblies in those cities had been taken into account, late in the first century of the Christian era.

Many Bible teachers understand the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 as not only moral in their bearing, but prophetic as well, and that each assembly sequentially brought into view gives us a perspective on successive periods in the history of the church of God.  Among those who hold this view, there is not perfect agreement on the historical periods outlined by these letters from the Lord Jesus Christ, who walks among the candlesticks as Judge, rather than as Savior. All the same, there are a few principles that present themselves when these churches are viewed prophetically, and my comments are really intended for those who are not set against such an interpretation.

In bringing a few observations to the attention of my readers, I wish to avoid the controversy that may be caused by circumscribing these periods too concretely. No doubt most would agree that we do indeed live in the latter days of the church period, and that the moral state of Christendom (the realm of professing Christianity), is at a very low ebb.  So-called “evangelical” Christianity has deteriorated over the decades as well, and all of us who seek to honor Christ in this scene must hang our heads in shame at our own failure in that endeavor.

I would encourage a fresh reading of Revelation 3, where we find Sardis as well, which will provide some context. What characterized Philadelphia, in contrast to the deadness found in Sardis?  (Sardis is what Protestantism had degenerated into.)  Two phrases are key here:  ” . . . thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied My name” (v. 8), and ” . . . thou hast kept the word of my patience . . . ” (v.10). There was no boasting of Pentecostal power among that despised company, neither in A.D. 90, nor in their more recent spiritual heirs.  However, there was a devoted adherence to the “word of Christ”¹ and a refusal to deny or compromise His name, as many others around them and before them doubtless had.  This opened up before them (as a door – v. 8) the opportunity for great blessing, and we see that historically there was much precious truth recovered to the church of God during that brief time period:  A fuller understanding of justification by faith, the recovery of the truth of the pre-tribulation rapture of the church (the promise of v. 10), the great principles of dispensational truth,  the heavenly character of the church and the purposes of God, a renewed understanding and practicing of the truth of the body of Christ and the house of God, and more.  Dr. Paul Wilkinson has spoken of the spiritual activity in this period as a “Bible reading or Bible study movement” in which the church was taken back to the word of God as interpreted literally.

So what has changed in the house of God² on earth that accounts for the stark difference in the Lord’s addresses to the last two churches in this series?  The church began to boast in the knowledge and blessing it had received, while losing the sense of dependence upon the Lord that so marked those of Philadelphian character.  The Lord’s condemnation is on account of Laodicea’s claim:  “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (v.17).  The Lord Jesus is seen on the outside now, for it is evident that the church saw little need for Him, or to be dependent upon Him, any longer.  How quickly things changed in the course of decades over the last half of the 19th century!  In a recent piece on Fox News’ Opinion page, Jeremiah J. Johnston asks the question: “Why are so many Christians biblically illiterate?”  He answers his own question in part by saying: “The Bible is not held in the esteem it once was. Over the last 150 years, America has drifted from its Biblical focus . . . Clearly, the challenge of biblical illiteracy in America is not because of a shortage of Bibles, but rather [because of a lack of] knowledge and appreciation of the Bible’s message.” I was struck that his period of 150 years corroborated what I believe the Laodicean period approximately covers, but the disease of lukewarmness has permeated the entirety of Christendom, not just America.

Because of the spiritual state in modern Christendom, I would add with some trepidation that healthy skepticism would be in order with regard to doctrines and practices that have their origins in the past century-and-a-half, or in the discarding of doctrines and practices that were maintained while the church was in a better spiritual state. In far too many cases, I would suggest that these recent additions or deletions are accommodations to the Laodicean spirit, rather than a further recovery of truth opened up to spiritual men by the Spirit of God.³

We have altogether gone down the moral grade toward Laodicea, and we ought to confess we are there.  But in the measure that we desire for ourselves a Philadelphian character, our souls may still find an open door of blessing, and may “rejoice in the Lord always” at His sweet assurance: “I have loved thee.”

 

¹  Colossians 3:16     ²  I Timothy 3:15; I Peter 4:17    ³ I Corinthians 2:12-13; 4:7

Born Again – Of Incorruptible Seed

If I were selling seeds, and you purchased apple tree seeds from me, you would expect to assume the risk that those seeds may not properly germinate. Even if they did, the new seedlings would be vulnerable to any number of dangers to its fragile life. But if I could offer you an “incorruptible” seed, one that would be positively perfect, that would mature to bear perfect fruit, that would never grow old and die, and that furthermore couldn’t be killed, you would certainly consider that a “miracle” seed.

It is just such a claim that the Spirit of God makes in the Word of God, and the incorruptible seed is that very Word created in us as a new and perfect life, a divine nature, by the Spirit.¹  Divine life in the human soul truly is a miracle.  Within that quickened soul, where there was once only an old fleshly nature that rejected God’s testimony and a mind that loved darkness (as we discussed in the previous column), there is now also a new nature embodied in a new man, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 ESV).

Evangelical Christian teachers make much of the act of believing, and of the fruit that follows faith, and it is well that they should.  However, many pay regrettably little attention to the new life in the soul that makes that faith and its fruit possible, even though the Bible has more to say on the matter than one may initially realize. New birth from above enables a soul once dead in sins to receive and believe on Jesus Christ: “As many as received Him . . . that believe on His name . . . who have been born . . . of God” (John 1:12-13 JND). Being born of water (a figure of the Word) and the Spirit brings spiritual eyesight to those who were once spiritually blind: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”. When God implants divine life into a soul, then an apprehension of God’s spiritual kingdom or realm is possible by faith.  The initiative and the “seed” are both God’s: “Of His own will begat He us with the Word of truth” (James 1:18).

The old nature (the flesh) that once left us “children of wrath”² still remains within the believer, and sadly may be used as a tool by the enemy of our souls to our detriment and loss; but there is nothing that the world, the flesh, or the Devil can do to impair or destroy that new and perfect nature, until at last the believer is freed from the effect of evil when the Lord calls him home. How is it that we can make these claims as to the newly created life’s perfection and permanence?  Let’s look at a few more Scriptures.

In I John 3:9, we are told that the one who has been “begotten (caused to be born) of God does not practice sin, because His seed abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he has been begotten of God.”  The Apostle John often presents his case in the abstract and absolute, and so we learn from this verse that the saint as viewed by God (whose very seed, nature, and life are in the new man) cannot sin. That’s a remarkable statement that often goes unnoticed.

Not only is that new man morally perfect because it is like God, as we noticed above in Ephesians 4:24, but it is also permanent, immune from decay and death.  A seed always imparts its characteristics to the plant, and parents always impart their characteristics to their children. The nature of the seed by which we have been born of God is manifestly “incorruptible”, so that its progeny must be incorruptible as well. “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” (I Peter 1:22-25).  What joy and assurance is in store for the believer who begins to appreciate the truth of all that comes with being born again!

 

¹ John 3:5,8; I Peter 1:22-25; II Peter 1:4; II Cor. 5:17; James 1:18    ²  Ephesians 2:3

The Truth About Being Born Again

The phrase “born-again Christian” is not an uncommon one in our day, and is often used to describe a person who is devout and committed to the tenets of the Christian faith, is very often on the conservative end of the religious (or political) spectrum, and claims to have had a spiritual conversion experience. But to discover what being born again really entails, and why it is necessary and beneficial, we must go to the Bible, the source of the term and the concept.

We ought to discuss first the necessity of “new birth”, a term that may be used interchangeably with the phrase “born again”. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:1-21 of the need of the people of Israel to be born again as a prerequisite for entering, or even to “see” (perceive by faith), the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was evidently about to inquire further about the Lord’s miracles and mission from God. Why then did Jesus change the subject in order to impress upon him an Old Testament teaching¹ that was seemingly unrelated? He did that because the Jews in general wanted a Messiah, a Teacher from God, on their own terms; that is, according to their nature as being “in the flesh”,² and Jesus was being faithful in speaking the truth of God concerning that fleshly nature.

The truth is that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh”. At first glance, that might seem to be a simplistic statement, but it is full of meaning as to how fallen human nature has been passed down to us. Now God has never found anything good in the flesh, not even an inclination toward Him. “There is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3:11), and “in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). A baby does not begin life with a “clean slate”, but with a fallen nature, and time and maturity have manifested literally billions of times over that our fleshly nature is at enmity with God, no matter how many times and ways He has or will yet test it. God tested our first parents (yet unfallen) in the garden of Eden, He tested men for a few thousand years under the influence of their consciences until the flood, and then under human government and under God’s perfect Law. In every case, and even given the most favorable circumstances, He got the same results, because the flesh can never improve, and certainly cannot attain to the level of “spirit”, for only “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Here is a parallel to consider: When the Lord Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the Devil for forty days, the tempter could find nothing in Jesus³ that answered to his temptations, for the Lord’s holy human nature was “of the Spirit”, and He came forth as pure gold from that temptation. He had a nature that “cannot sin” (I John 3:9). Conversely, the natural man is born with a fleshly nature that will not obey nor seek God, no matter how much he is courted, no matter how much benefit or blessing is promised him if only he would obey. A work of the Spirit of God must take place in a person’s soul before there will be any response to the drawing of God (Romans 8:5-8).

Before you rise up in disbelief at the gloomy picture that the Scriptures paint of the depravity of our common fleshly nature, think about the tendencies of your own heart, and let’s look at ourselves (at least our former selves) in light of the testimony of the Lord Jesus to Nicodemus: “Men loved (past tense) darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil”. This is universal, just as Jeremiah’s description of the human heart is universal in Jeremiah 17:9:  “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” We surely cannot “know” or tell the depths to which our own hearts could or would go if left to themselves apart from new life created in our souls when the Spirit of God initiates our new birth.

Next time in this column I hope to address the more hopeful and positive aspect of this subject: God’s work in human souls for their eternal blessing and for His ultimate glory.

 

¹ Ezekiel 36:25-27     ² Romans 7:5     ³ Matthew 4:1-11; John 14:30.

Megachurches: Gathering or Scattering?

Willow Creek Community Church, a large megachurch in the Chicago area, sought to attract seekers and the “unchurched” several decades ago by creating an environment in which they could say: “This is not your ordinary church.”  The church’s minister, Bill Hybels, performed a neighborhood survey prior to organizing the congregation. He went door-to-door asking residents what they disliked about church and what they would want in a church. From this, he constructed a “user friendly” worship service with sermons oriented to practical life and devoid of appeals for money, religious jargon and “heavy guilt trips.” Fast-forward 35 years, and a recent article in Time reports that “Hybels has been meeting privately for the past year with LGBTQ congregants to learn to better understand their stories.” His massive religious organization is not alone in the gradual acceptance of unscriptural lifestyles because changing times warrant a more inclusive message in order to continue to attract crowds.

Willow Creek is just one of hundreds of megachurches that have sprung up in a movement over the past 50 years. While there are without doubt many sincere Christians and godly leaders in this movement, the question I would like to consider briefly (given this short format) is whether this great gathering of souls to many large, suburban campuses answers to the Lord Jesus’ thought and words on the matter of gathering believers.

The Holy Spirit’s testimony in John’s gospel as to the Lord Jesus’ mission in this world is that that He “should die for that nation (Israel) . . . but that also He should gather together in one all the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 11:52-53). Christianity and the church are here alluded to, though not mentioned, the Lord Himself being the gatherer. In Matthew, having introduced the church by name, He assures His disciples that “where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). The passive voice in the phrase “are gathered” points to an external gathering power. Elsewhere in another context, Jesus says “he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad” (Matt. 12:30). In these passages we note that He has been, and still is, at work gathering believing souls to Himself in the power of the Spirit, and if we desire to have fellowship with Christ in that work, it must be according to the principles in the Word of God, which He always honored. Otherwise, our attempts at gathering may have the effect of scattering.

Megachurches are most often the product of one highly gifted, charismatic leader. How many Christians are drawn away from fellowship with those whom the Lord Jesus has gathered to Himself on the ground of truth, and are attracted to such a leader, whether by force of his personality, or by the “social vortex” that his organization has created?

In ancient times, the masses were drawn to the likes of Joseph, Moses, and David, no doubt some of the greatest leaders in history, and it was according to God’s mind in all of those cases. But there is no earthly answer to those great leaders during the church age, and I will contend that it is so by God’s design. The Lord Jesus Christ is alone worthy to have “the gathering of the people be” unto Himself now, and in that coming day of His glory in this world (Genesis 49:10). Christ is the one pictured and previewed in those leaders of old, and not the charismatic megachurch leaders we’ve seen rise to prominence in our day.

The Apostle Paul was God’s “chosen vessel”, but he distinctly lacked charisma and was allowed of the Lord to suffer difficulties to keep him from glorying¹. It was Paul that warned the Ephesian elders of the scattering effect, not only of “grievous wolves”, but of men arising from among believers to “draw away disciples after them” by speaking perverted things². Would not Paul have considered it a perversion of the ministry the Lord had given him, should John Mark or Demas have left him to start their own movement by taking counsel with sinners for the purpose of learning how to most effectively gather both the saved and the lost into great assemblies headed by themselves? Preach a clear gospel to the lost in venues and forums appropriate to that, as many thankfully have and still do, but assembling for worship and ministry pertains to saints, not sinners.

The Lord Jesus assured his disciples that He would sometimes gather saints to His name in numbers as few as two or three, and not merely for casual fellowship. All administrative authority to bind and loose is given to even a small assembly gathered in the Lord’s name, for that gathering represents the whole church of God, “the pillar and base of the truth”³.  If that great Head of the Church is content to bless and sanction even only a few in many places throughout the world who cling to the truth, ought not you and I be content to have it so?

(Some background material was taken from “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena”, by Scott Thumma, PhD)

¹ I Corinthians 2:1-5; II Corinthians 12:7-11  ² Acts 20:29-30  ³ Matthew 18:17-20; I Timothy 3:15 JND

 

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Most of us know the context in which this question was asked, far back in time near the dawn of human history. Cain spoke these words after killing his brother Abel, and after blatantly lying to God when he was asked: “Where is Abel thy brother?” (Genesis 4:9). What might have been going through Cain’s mind, in addition to that carnal impulse to deny culpability for his brutal act? He was asserting his independence, both as to being accountable to God, and as to any accountability for his brother’s welfare.

Asserting or defending one’s independence in moral and spiritual matters is never commended by God.  Spiritual independence is the rejection of the idea of accountability to God. Moral independence is the refusal to be accountable to another person or group for your actions, and often includes despising God-given accountability for the welfare of others. We find manifestations of this spirit of independence in the heart of the natural man in many other Bible characters, and we will briefly notice just two more of them.

Pharaoh shows his character and begins his downward spiral toward destruction by uttering this contemptuous question: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey Him to let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2)  He immediately answers the question to his own condemnation: “I know not the Lord.”  There is no doubt that Pharaoh’s conscience spoke to him of God’s claims upon him, but he scorned all accountability to his Creator, and all accountability for the well-being of Jehovah’s people.

Nabal was a “churlish and evil” man, the very opposite of his good and beautiful wife, Abigail (I Samuel 25). When David and his men rightly desired some consideration from Nabal, he retorts with a question very similar to Pharaoh’s:  “Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse?”  And not content to leave it there, he adds insult to injury and opines as to David’s motives: “There be many servants now a days that break away every man from his master.”  In other words, Nabal casts David as a rebel who achieved independence from Saul, and if David requires some sustenance for himself and his followers, let him return and subject himself to his former master. But David was a fugitive, not a rebel.

Now David is a lovely picture for us of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the account just mentioned, Nabal reproached David just as the Pharisees much later, and in the same proud spirit, reproached Jesus, accusing Him of having an independent mission, saying “Thou barest record of Thyself; Thy record is not true!” (John 8:13-14)  But there never was a more dependent man on this earth than our blessed Lord, so that the Pharisees’ accusations against David’s greater Son just serve to manifest their own estrangement from God and His truth (John 5:30-38; 6:38-40).

It is not surprising to us that sinners would insist upon their moral and spiritual independence, but what is the lesson for Christians in pictures such as these?  “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself” (Romans 14:7-9). Let our hearts and consciences always exercise themselves in dependence upon God, with the Lord Jesus as our example, and let us own and act upon our accountability to and for others in the body of Christ. He came not to please Himself, but “took upon Him the form of a servant”.  An independent spirit may be acceptable in a society that values political independence, but what ought to characterize the spirits of the godly? Our God is certain to honor and reward the life that is dependent and accountable, conformed to the image of His Son.