Sunday, January 26, 2020

What Is Salvation? #JesusFollowers


A strict adherence to the language of the Scriptures will keep us from the error of imagining that the evil from which Jesus saves is the curse of man's original condition - the fearful destiny in which we are "cursed" by Nature.

It is not only inconceivable that a benevolent Being should have subjected His creatures to such a miserable fate prior to their sinning, or even to their existing, but, which is more to the point, the sacred writers perpetually teach that the misery to be saved from is that of sin, not of our natural condition; that the wrath to be escaped is that which comes from their own transgressions, not that which awaits them because they are simply human.

They speak of no evil prior to or greater than that of active sin. They speak of no curse before this, or independent of it. And they propose to save from this as the grand, the essential, the all-comprehensive ill, leading to consequences of wretchedness and despair.

To avoid the penalty, yet still enjoy the sin, has always been a chief object of false religions. But let us not be deceived. No such preposterous compromise has been made. 

What, then, is the nature of salvation, and from what does Jesus save us?

If we inquire of religion, as taught either by nature or by revelation, what is it, in strict truth, which God designs especially to promote by his government and his dispensations? Happiness? Yes, unquestionably. But how? Happiness only? Of any kind or of any description? If so, there were no need of laws and restraints, and moral laws, or institutions of discipline and instruction; for God might by the arbitrary appointments of His will lavish it abundantly on His creatures. But surely it is not so.

Being a holy God, whose hatred of sin is equal to His desire of happiness, and in whose view there is no true happiness where there is no holiness, He, therefore, makes holiness the primary object of His government, and the moral perfection of His offspring the favorite purpose of His dispensations.

God provides the means for the regeneration of free, intelligent, voluntary agents, existing in a state of probation.

There is nothing either arbitrary or compulsory in the Gospel. Salvation is offered to us, but not forced upon us. It is left to depend upon the use which is made of those privileges and aids which the grace of God has bestowed.

It is thus entirely conditional. It is dependent on every person’s free choice.

The waters of life flow by us in copious and inviting streams; if we will come and take them, we shall live forever; but let us act our own pleasure; there is no constraint. The table of heaven is spread, and urgent invitations are sent abroad, and a joyous welcome awaits those who will be guests. But it rests with ourselves to accept or refuse.

Jesus has thrown wide the doors of everlasting day, and poured a strong light on the true path of peace. He has placed himself at its entrance, to invite, and urge, and warn us - by our allegiance to God, by the miseries of our present condition, by the welfare of our souls, by the inconceivable glories of heaven – to pursue the way of holiness and life.

Jesus has offered us guidance, direction, aid, and blessing. We need only come to him, and we shall have life.

It is thus that salvation is by grace. Grace provides the means. Sinful and undeserving people, by an act of essential Benignity, by the unmerited favor of divine love, is put in the condition to escape from sin, and reach the bliss of heaven.

It is a general provision for the human race ; not a plan for the recovery of a selected few, nor a favor bestowed upon individuals; but an impartial offer of mercy to all — which offer having been made, and the opportunity having been given, each one is then, separately, to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

The grace of God makes the most ample and munificent provision, even, as it were, the wings of an angel for his flight upward; but if we will not stretch them and rise, it sends down no chariot of fire to bear away our reluctant souls.

God saves us through Jesus — by opening to us a free path of escape from sin and misery, and guiding and aiding us in it, through the perils of life, to our heavenly home.

God opened the way and provided the means; and in each of us must walk in the way and use the means; or, instead of inheriting the blessing, we perish in the wilderness.

(Adapted from a sermon by Henry Ware, Jr. ca. 1850)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

God Gives Us Freedom To Choose! #JesusFollowers



God, our Creator, has created all of us with the awesome responsibility of the Freedom to Choose. The abilities and knowledge we inherit from God at our birth allow us to choose the Good, but has also left us with the ability to choose what is evil. It is in recognizing what is evil, and avoiding or repenting of it, then actively choosing the Good that we are considered Righteous by God.

In the Hebrew Bibles, and as taught by Jesus, God repeatedly tells us to "choose" and "obey" and that we will be judged according to our choices.

God, through Moses, said that His Law was “not too hard” so that we “could do it.” (Deut. 30:14) And God expected us to obey his moral commands, as Jesus repeated consistently. Jesus said that no one else would be charged with our disobedience, and no other would be responsible for our actions except ourselves.

In the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible, we learn in the story of Adam and Eve how men were entrusted with a Freedom of Choice. The story portrays God as giving Adam and Eve the choice of not eating from a free of knowledge and remaining in a Garden of innocence forever, or eating from it and eventually dying, and leaving to make his own way in the world.

They chose to leave, and were told by God to "Be fruitful and multiply." Otherwise, his choice, and that of  Eve, affected no one but them. And note that Adam and Eve - created in God's image (Gen. 1:27) - were created to be perfect by God, they lived in a perfect world, yet were able to disobey God.

Sin cannot be inherited. Here's how we know: God told Adam's son, Cain (just one generation after Adam!) that he COULD avoid sin, and MUST do so to avoid punishment (Gen. 4:7.)

God didn’t respect Cain and his offering, "So Cain was very angry, and the expression on his face fell. And Yahweh said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires you, but you must rule over it." (Gen. 4:5b-8)

If he was able to freely choose to do Good, so may we! Only Cain was affected by his subsequent evil choice. The Bible teaches us that sins are acts, not THINGS. Sins are what we commit or avoid, not a thing we inherit biologically.

This is why Ezekiel records: "The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, fand the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." (Ezek. 18:19)

Just after the Exodus out of Egypt, Joshua told the Israelites to serve Yahweh their God, "in sincerity and in truth," and to "choose this day whom you will serve," (Joshua 24:14-15) Clearly, Joshua believed they could choose to faithfully serve God in sincerity and in truth.

The prophet Isaiah also clearly agreed with God that human beings were capable of choosing to, "reject the wrong and choose the right." (7:15)

Psalm 24 notes who may stand before God: "The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god." This strongly affirms our ability to obey God and seek to be righteous. If we cannot do these things, then literally no one would ever stand in God's presence. But that's not what the Bible teaches.

Psalm 25-27 are even more personal, with King David saying that he has (following repentance) led a clean life by choosing the righteous path. He had earlier written: "Yahweh dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me." (Psalm 18:20)

Jesus had high hopes for our moral abilities, and taught that we are to be, "perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect." (Matt. 5:48) This same teacher - this human being chosen by God - said that he did all things that pleased God (John 8:29.)

He also said that we must follow him, doing ALL that he had done. (John 13:15; 14:12) Based on these teachings, we definitely have the ability to do great good, if we choose to do so. It's the choosing that can be hard sometimes, but that does not diminish our ability to do the good, which is God-given.

We have the God-given ability to seek Godliness and that we can become Godly and complete – not by ourselves without God or without God’s chosen example, but with God's ongoing help and with the example of Jesus always before us.

As we have seen here, it is NOT our inherited destiny to be "unable to not sin," and that we are not born so depraved that we may not choose what is good and do it. The scriptures teach that we may indeed choose NOT to sin.

Ecclesiasticus records the clearest statement of our freedom to choose, saying: "If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given. For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything; his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every human action. He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin." (15:15-20)

It is God’s choice – His GRACE alone – whether we shall live with Him eternally. But it is up to us if WE CHOOSE to seek this gift, and God says we demonstrate this choice by our actions. This isn't true only if we are unable to freely choose what is good.

We are called to commit our lives to obedience to God's chosen Son, Jesus, the Anointed Prophet of God, and submit to humbly walk with him, relying, as he taught, on God's grace and forgiveness and growing into the Righteous Perfection that God knows we are capable of achieving.

And while sin may be waiting by the door for us, seeking to master us, we are assured that we may indeed defeat – and master – sinful temptations. This is amazingly good news, because it shows that our Creator knows us, and still trusts us with the ability to act and choose to obey Him freely!

Through the teachings of Jesus, God shows us that He is a parent Who allows His children to make mistakes, repent, and turn back to doing what is right.We should thank God, our Creator in Whose image we were created, for trusting us to make our own choices, and let’s pledge to always take that awesome responsibility seriously in all that we do.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Faith That Works #JesusFollowers


Without action, nothing is achieved. Jesus told a parable in which a king left a group of servants in charge of some money. The ones who invested and used it were praised upon his return. Those who did nothing and hid the money were scolded.

The same is true with our Faith in God, Whom Jesus reveals to us through his teachings, life and death. We are saved from sin in this life, and eternally, only by the teachings and example of Jesus.

A Faith that rests in smug complacency and pride fails. A Faith that puts our talents to work and tests us makes us spiritually stronger.

Jesus calls us to run, to achieve, to do, to act, to work, to become better, to seek out truth, to be righteous, to be humble, to worship and praise our God, and to love others.

And our works have eternal consequences, as well as being of great benefit to others around us right now.

This is a world desperately in need of a deep, loving faith that can work righteousness in the heart as well as in the mind. It needs a Kingdom of Godly men and women who actively feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, bind up the broken-hearted and tend to the ill. This is the very mission Jesus tells us he was sent to proclaim by his, and our, Creator.

Mere platitudes and a religion based upon “instant salvation,” which leaves our neighbors unloved, unserved, and falsely assured of eternity, cheats both them and us out of experiencing the Kingdom that Jesus announced as his mission.

Jesus taught clearly that we are saved eternally by God according to our works (though not by others' opinions of our works, nor by our high opinion of our own works, nor by how loudly we perform our works.)

God alone judges our Works, but it's clear from Jesus' teachings that mere good intentions alone do not save us, nor do they bring about God's Kingdom on earth.

There is no other teaching claiming the name ‘Christianity” that leads to salvation other than the words of Jesus, our Master. All we need to know about God’s Will for us was revealed in the words and example of Jesus, the one God adopted, chose and commissioned to preach to us.

So, when we encounter what is claimed to be the Gospel, if it fails to challenge us to pursue Good Works, we know that it's a false and easy Faith we've encountered – a wide and false gate, rather than the Gospel preached from the very mouth of Jesus.

That's because Jesus clearly calls us to an active Faith - a Faith that Works. It's a challenge worth accepting and worth LIVING. It leads to a spiritually complete life and to eternal life.

Jesus is a teacher who challenges us, his students, to become spiritually complete by actively seeking and doing Righteousness.

“For I have given you an example,” says our Master, “that you also should do just as I have done to you.”  (John 13:15)

Jesus preached in order to challenge us to seek spiritual completeness, and calls us today to be examples in his name. And he, as a human being, demonstrated that we can follow him in all things.

To imagine Jesus teaches anything less is to make him and his teachings into something small, and his Faith into something light, unimportant, and easy to obtain.

We must not degrade Jesus' teachings and the Faith that he proclaimed to the world in this way. And we should not settle for a Faith that doesn't Work Righteousness in this world, which desperately needs it.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The God of Second Chances #JesusFollowers


Jesus teaches us about the God of Second Chances, and with every new day, and new year, we face fresh opportunities to turn back again to God.

When we come to the knowledge of God's will for our lives - that we should love God with all our heart, mind, strength and soul, and love and serve others just as we love and serve ourselves - we have embraced a new beginning, and undergo a New Birth. We are saved from sin.

Mere knowledge, however, is not enough. Mere verbal or mental assent is not enough. Emotional fervor and good feelings about God are not enough. God, our Creator, calls us to act, and do, and become better, more Spiritually complete people who reflect that which God created for us to become.

Repentance of our past sins and shortcomings gives us a clean slate - we indeed become "white as Snow" when we first ask for forgiveness and repent. But then we must commit to strive to keep ourselves clean and unspotted from a world that has not yet embraced the love and purity of God's path.

While we have not yet achieved moral completeness, all of us are called to seek it. Those who continue to recklessly sin and rebel against God's moral Law does not know God, nor the one whom God sent, Jesus.

Jesus demonstrated with his life, teachings and death the way we should respond to God's gifts. Jesus' example is our model and template.

If we follow the example of Jesus, our lives may become just as full, complete and pleasing to God as his was.

Jesus calls us to a life of Good Works in humility and compassion. Service to others leads to spiritual completeness.

We must approach his example with fear and trembling, and with great humility, and not arrogance. And of course, always seeking forgiveness from God our Father and Creator for our shortcomings.

If we seek forgiveness from God, in true repentance, then our past sins are forgiven. If we then remain in his Teachings, Jesus says we will be saved by God.

After repenting and accepting the knowledge of God's path Jesus reveals to us, we are challenged to actively live out this Faith.

But God doesn't leave us to face this challenge alone. We always have the example of Jesus, and we also have God's ever-present spiritual comfort, always there to guide, encourage and hold us tightly during times of trouble and trial.

And God has implanted within us the seeds that can grow and become a visible representation of the Kingdom of God - in this place and in this time. Knowledge of God's moral plan for our lives, shown to us by Jesus, germinates those seeds and they are nurtured by his example and God's ongoing love and strength.

Each of us can grow within us a Spiritual Abundance that gives light and hope to the world.

Let us greet every new year, new month, new day, new hour, and every new minute as a precious opportunity to serve God and our neighbors in God's name!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Putting Others First, Just As Jesus Taught! #JesusFollowers


What if everyone put others first in all things? What if all of us, all the time, thought of others' needs and put ourselves in second place?

If this concept doesn't sound familiar to you, it should, because this thinking is at the core of the teaching of Jesus, and is actually the Gospel he taught.

If Jesus is the one whom God chose to be our teacher of Righteousness and our perfect example to follow, what he says actually matters.

And while we would sometimes like to give others' words equal authority to his, in fact, Jesus' words alone are to be our pathway to the life God wishes us to live, if he alone is our Master.

Jesus taught that we must seek not to be first, or the Greatest among others, but instead to be the last, putting others first.

Jesus told a parable saying that we must not seek to give the most important and most visible public seats to alleged VIPs - seeking favors from thrm in return - but instead, we ought to let others, including the poor and disabled sit with us.

“When you host a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or brothers or relatives or rich neighbors. Otherwise, they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you host a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed." (Luke 14:12-14)

Jesus taught that God doesn't make distinctions among people, and neither should we.

When some of his disciples asked to be given honors, he said that the first would be last and the last would be made first.

Jesus made it clear, speaking to the disciples,  "whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave." Jesus says he made his life a ransom for many, giving all to others. We, he said, must do the same.

Jesus says we must love our neighbors just as we love ourselves, and treat others as we wish to be treated. Further, he said we must deny ourselves if we are to follow him.

We ought to heed Jesus' teachings, then, and seek to treat everyone equally, putting others first, and our desires second.

It's clear from all the he taught that Jesus calls us all to a life of action and Good Works. Every one of our actions in our daily lives should show to others how God wishes humanity to relate to one another and to our Creator.

God wishes us to be holy, just as God is holy, merciful, just as God is merciful, and righteous, just as God is righteous.

Jesus says he did all that God asked him to do, and calls us to always seek to do the same. (John 8:29; 13:15)

Jesus never shirked his duty to serve others, even washing the feet of the disciples as a sign of his humility and how he was living as a "ransom" to others (John 13.)

Serving each other selflessly is the pattern our exemplar, Jesus, gave us to follow. It's not too hard for us, and it's not just a model to admire.

He gave us this example not to make us feel insignificant and unworthy, or to merely "convict us" of our inability to do it, but to prove that this is a path that we, too, may tread, in his footsteps.

By taking up the challenge of seeking to emulate Jesus in all things, we are pleasing God, Who, through Jesus, gave us this challenging Good News, and Who made us capable of accepting it and doing as He wishes us to do.

"Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Matt. 16:24)

"And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 8:39)

This was quite the opposite of the teaching of the religious authorities of the time, the scribes and Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, "They love the places of honor at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues." (Matt. 23:6)

God wishes us to put others first, and his chosen son and spokesman, Jesus, demonstrated in word and deed how to do this perfectly, then told us to follow him and do just as he had done.

Let's get busy, then, serving and loving our neighbors!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Let Us Welcome The Adult #Jesus, Too! #JesusFollowers


Later this week, on Christmas Day, we will "welcome" Jesus into the world along with Christendom. This is a Jesus we already know, a man fully grown and with whom we are more than acquainted.

This isn't a baby we must perpetually welcome into our homes. We are confronted instead with the adult Jesus.

Meeting the adult Jesus is difficult for many, and even frightens them to meet him as an adult and not a helpless, unassuming child. The adult Jesus scared the religious elites of his day because of what he asked, just as he scares the religious elites of today.

Jesus is an adult whom we must each decide whether to ignore, or to serve, as God intended us to do.

If we claim his name, and wish to be identified with it, we must not assume that admiring a baby in a manger is what God wishes. We must not delude ourselves that admiration - or even worship - is alone sufficient. We cannot ignore the adult Jesus, or prefer the baby instead of the adult.

The adult Jesus is hidden away by the religious elites. He scares them. A fully human Jesus, fully grown, with a clearly understood and fully formed mission and a challenging religion of Good Works, scares them to death.

So this adult Jesus isn't celebrated at Christmas. And he never makes an appearance the rest of the year.

Who is this Jesus?

Jesus, the adult, was of course born a baby, but he was born fully a man, of human parents, just as we were born. He grew in the knowledge of God and gained wisdom; he pleased God in all he did. When he became an adult, he was chosen and anointed by God to be our Master, our Teacher, our Template and the Example of how a human being should live for the glory of God and most beneficially for our fellow human beings.

This Jesus is not the one created for us by Priests whom we must simply admire and worship from afar; unable to obey, unable to follow because he is so different, so distant, so alien.

We may instead celebrate the Jesus - a man called and chosen by God - whom we can fully love as our elder brother, and the one whom we can actively follow as our example in all things. We may become more like God because one of us has done it already, setting the example towards which we may strive.

Let us remember the birth, but also the adult life, of THIS Jesus, a Jesus worth celebrating on Christmas Day, and every day.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Real Message of the Thief On the Cross #JesusFollowers


Two men, identified in the Book of Luke as criminals, were put to death by crucifixion on either side of Jesus on Golgotha, the place of the Skull.

In Luke 23:39-43, the story is told that, "One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This thief's experience has long been repeated by ministers and Christian apologists as "proof" that salvation can come instantly to us, effortlessly, just for the asking, and requires no knowledge or action on our part. But a closer look at this story reveals a deeper message, more consistent with the teachings of Jesus, who should be our final authority.

The teaching of many modern preachers is that the thief received "instant salvation" because of his utterance to Jesus that he believed him to be the messiah.  But they neglect one important fact: the thief clearly knew Jesus, or at least knew about him and his ministry of the Kingdom.

This is evidenced by his statements that he knew that Jesus had "done nothing wrong," that he taught about a "kingdom" and that even his colleague had called him "the Christ," or "One who is Anointed (by God)." In this case, the Messiah, or savior.

His affirmation that Jesus was innocent and that he had been anointed by God to preach about a Kingdom, showed more than a passing knowledge of Jesus and his ministry. 

Therefore, his statements showed a knowledge of Jesus and his teaching, and that teaching had been that all will be rewarded according to their deeds. His utterance, therefore, was evidence of a previous faith in Jesus, even if it had been a recent one.

And we are called to, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 5:16)

Showing mercy to the thief was clearly in line with Jesus' teaching that "blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." The thief's comments to Jesus and his rebuke of his fellow thief were clearly acts of mercy and kindness towards Jesus, who had just forgiven those who were putting him to death, saying "Forgive them, for they know not what they do" (23:34) even as the Roman soldiers and others taunted him.

That the thief would "surely" be with Jesus "today" in paradise (a theological hornets nest, since Jesus was said in the Fourth Gospel to have ascended to Heaven two days later, on Sunday) doesn't mean the thief was "granted" eternal life with God in Heaven, based merely on his utterance on the cross. That would be assuming a fact not stated here. At most, it means he was to stand before God, and be with Jesus, in the afterlife. It certainly showed Jesus' approval, and appreciation, for the thief's comments.

Now, all this is not to say that the thief's late recognition of Jesus wasn't rewarded by God. After all, God isn't bound by our utterances, nor by our sense of Justice. As James (2:13) notes, "Mercy triumphs over justice." Christians today tend to put God in a box, saying that he "cannot" forgive or grant mercy to whomever He wishes. He surely can. 

We must not say that he "may not" grant mercy, any more than we may say that He MUST forgive and grant us eternal salvation, simply because of a single utterance of Faith about Jesus, like the one the thief made from the cross.

It also follows that we cannot take Jesus' mercy here on this one man as a license to extrapolate man-made doctrine and dogmas. Specifically, we may not use this story to imply that works and good deeds are not required by us by God, when Jesus and the entire Hebrew Scriptures before him taught otherwise. Jesus said, "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required." (Luke 12:48)

And when he was asked directly how one obtained eternal life (Mark 10:17-22) he replied by reciting the (Ten) Commandments, and elsewhere gave his own that he believed we are required by God to follow.

Jesus calls us to a life of joyful service done lovingly to our neighbors, so that God's Heavenly Kingdom may be made a reality here on earth each day by the light of our actions.

The moment we are saved by this knowledge, and learn of Jesus' example and teachings, we are then called by him to live the life he demonstrated for us and become the whole and complete human beings God wishes us to become. THAT is the clear message Jesus left for us.