Friday, March 29, 2013

Can I Lose My Salvation?

In my last entry, I discussed the theological tension between the concept of God's Sovereignty and man's Free Will. You might find it helpful to read that entry before this one ("The Sovereignty vs. Free Will Debate", March 27, 2013).

Once we have concluded that, "Yes, God is sovereign and mankind has the freedom to accept or reject Him," we are left with a dilemma: "Once saved, can I become 'unsaved'? And can I really know if I am saved?" This is actually a question for pastoral theology. That is, how can we help people to find a sense of assurance in their salvation so that they are not continually in a state of anxiety? Does God really intend our faith-walk to be more like a pogo-stick ride?

There are several issues connected to this anxiety. First, just because we are saved does not mean that we are sinless. The Greek word for "sin" comes from archery and means "to miss the mark." That is, no human being has been made perfect (except for Jesus) and thus, unable to miss the mark of God's holiness. Therefore, since we all fall short of perfect holiness, God has provided a way to deal with it so that it does not derail our walk with God.

"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1: 8-9).

"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if any of you does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2: 1-2).

Second is a question: "Does my salvation rest in my ability to keep myself saved or in God's ability to save me?" Here is where most of our anxiety comes from. If keeping myself saved is a case of trying to maintain the right attitude, then there is very little hope for me. I am incapable of saving myself. Only God can save me. Therefore, only God can keep me saved.

Paul's struggle with sin helps us understand this dynamic in Romans 7: 7-25. He describes the internal struggle between the flesh and his desire to live a holy life. In his own strength, this is impossible.

"Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ my Lord!" Rom. 7: 24-25).

Related to this is the problem of doubts. If I experience doubts about my faith, does that mean I am no longer saved?

I like to say that doubts actually are indications that you DO have faith. Only someone who believes in God and His goodness will experience the cognitive dissonance that occurs when reality bites. Job is perhaps the best example. Most of the book is the story of his struggle with how to reconcile his suffering with the idea that God is good and just. But just because he struggled did not invalidate his righteous standing before God, who commends him at the end of the book.

Hebrews chapter eleven is called the "roll-call of faith." But notice how scary and doubt-filled each person's walk was. Abraham did not feel like Superman as he left his home, but he was going in response to faith, "even though he did not know where he was going" (Heb. 11: 8)

Third, there are some passages, most notably Hebrews 6: 4-6, that seem to indicate that we might backslide and become apostate to such a degree that we can't ever be saved again. For that reason, I will give a little time to unpacking this text.

Hebrews is a book that is like a series of sermonettes, each of them including a warning for those who might not take heed. In chapter six, the writer wants to expound on the teaching about the priesthood of Melchizedek, but he is afraid that his readers are not grounded enough in the basics of the faith. Thus, he warns them not to get so lax that they backslide into their pre-Christian faith (which may have been Judaism or Paganism). Doing so would be a rejection of Christ and would ruin what they had seemed to attain to such a degree that they might as well join in with those who were responsible for crucifying Jesus in the first place.

The writer is presenting a "straw-man" argument. Hypothetically, someone could seem to be a Christian, to the degree that they actually participate fully in the community of faith, but then turn away in a way that is beyond repair.

But would such a person have really been saved in the first place? I think the answer is "no." Listen to John as he writes about apostates in Asia Minor who turned away from the faith and became persecutors of the church during his time:

"They went out from us, but they really did not belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us" (1 John 2: 19).

Thus, true believers will persevere in the faith over the long haul.

Going back to Hebrews, the writer turns from the hypothetical to the practical. "It is impossible for [those who become apostate] to be brought back to repentance..." (Heb. 6: 4-6). He compares these apostates to those who are like seeds planted among thorns and thistles (recalling the Parable of the Sower). But then he says, "Even though we speak like this [giving a hypothetical warning], dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case--things that accompany salvation" (vs. 9).

You see, apostasy is proof that the person never was saved in the first place. That is, they had never really completed the transaction of faith that resulted in them being born again. Once the new birth occurs, the individual has something called "eternal life." It is called "eternal" because it is a new quality of life that lasts forever, and thus, cannot end.

So why did the writer give such a harsh warning if he doesn't think they are apostates? "We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (vv. 11-12).

Thus, there is little evidence that Hebrews is describing anything that actually was happening. It is more a warning to be diligent in pursuing one's growth in the faith. To read this passage and then obsess over the security of my own salvation is to get out of it something that it did not intend. I believe God wants us to feel an assurance that, if we have given our lives to Him, then we belong to Him and our standing rests on His finished work, and not in our imperfect ability to save ourselves.

"I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand" (John 10: 28). Perhaps its time to enjoy the assurance that you belong to Him and that you have received "eternal life." That means, it will never end.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Sovereignty vs. Free Will Debate

John Calvin
For the last 500 years, the Protestant movement has debated an issue that defined a major theological divide: "Once someone is saved, can they lose their salvation?"

Underlying this issue is the deeper debate: "To what degree does God's sovereign will determine our fate compared to our own free will?" Or really, "In light of the fact that God is sovereign, can we really have freedom when it comes to our salvation?"

This blog will begin the discussion, focusing on God's sovereignty vs. humanity's free will.

Before I plunge in to this question, let me say that this issue is becoming less and less important and divisive. People who land on either side of the divide are becoming less polarized and more able to listen to the other side and still maintain fellowship. This is a very good thing. It is important for us to realize that believers can thoughtfully and prayerfully end up disagreeing and still be friends. So, let us remember the old adage: "On the essentials--unity; on the non-essentials--liberty."

Of course the earliest debates were between followers of Arminius and Calvin. The Remonstrants (who were Arminians) outlined their objection to Calvin by defining 5 points that they debated. These became the Five Points of Calvinism, which we now remember using the mnemonic, TULIP. Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints.

To summarize the debate: Calvin stressed the Sovereignty of God: "Since God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc., His will rules in everything so that salvation is determined by Him and the individual cannot override it. Human freedom is an illusion. You do not have the power to lose your salvation since God's will determines whether or not you are saved. I might as well relax and let God do what God is going to do."

Jacob Arminius
Arminians stressed the Free Will of humans: "God has gifted mankind with free will and so, He makes Himself a powerless observer of human choices. God is anxiously thinking: 'Will Mark choose me? Will Mark reject me?' God's will has been self-neutralized in such a way that I can now choose to believe and subsequently choose not to believe. I am left with a nagging sense of insecurity about my salvation: have I really repented adequately? Do I need to get saved again?"

The preponderance of New Testament passages seem to support the Calvinist position. For instance: "You do not believe me because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life [not probationary], and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand" (John 10: 26-29).

And: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8: 38-39).

I could go on and on with similar passages. The person who would argue against Calvin must adequately deal with the Biblical use of the terms of "election," "foreknowledge," "predestination," "eternal life," "salvation," etc. Personally, I lean towards a modified Calvinism.

But there are a couple of passages that seem to teach the possibility of one being saved and then losing one's salvation. Most important of these passages is in Hebrews: "It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace" (Heb. 6: 4-6).

Let me offer a brief approach to this "antinomy." (An antinomy is not the same as a paradox. It is the condition where there are two reasonable statements that seem impossible to both be true at one time.)

First, God, by definition, is sovereign over His creation. Second, in the Garden of Eden, when God spoke to Adam for the first time in Gen. 2: 16, He seemed to limit His own sovereignty and allowed Adam to make a choice to eat or not eat the fruit. The giving of a choice to Adam was a giving of free will. Third, Adam chose to disobey God and God allowed it, resulting in sin infecting all of humanity, and death along with it. Adam's free will allowed him to "lose" his salvation. Fourth, God initiated a plan to redeem mankind in a way that maintained His own sovereignty, and yet allowed men to maintain their free will.

My conclusion is that, yes, both are true: God is indeed sovereign and His will cannot be thwarted. And yes, mankind has been given Free Will to repent and believe.

Our difficulty is one of perspective. It is like being stuck at ground level and being asked to describe the color of a house's roof that is painted white on the front slope and blue on the back slope. No matter how fast I can run from the front yard to back yard, I can't see both sides at the same time. But God views the two facets of the roof from above and can see how they fit together. We need to begin with a basic humility that perhaps this is one of those big issues that contains an element of mystery.

Next week I'll address more the issue of Eternal Security:Once I've been saved, can I lose my salvation?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Seeing Zacchaeus

I have been "vertically challenged" for my whole life. I was 4-foot-10 when I started High School and never really had that hoped-for growth spurt. I was 5-foot-5-and-a-half when I graduated and I've been there ever since.

And I've heard a lot of "short people" jokes in my life. "Just how short is he?" "He's so short, he can do chin-ups on the chalk tray." "He's so short, he can play hand ball against the curb."

Perhaps that's why I love the story of Zacchaeus so much. "He wanted to get a look at Jesus, but he couldn't see over the crowds because he was a pip-squeak, so he ran up ahead, anticipating the route, and climbed a sycamore-fig tree so he could get a look at Jesus when he passed by" (Luke 19: 3-4: my paraphrase). (If someone is casting another Jesus movie, how about Danny DeVito in this role?)

And of course, we know that Zacchaeus was a "chief tax collector." That is, he was not just a lowly tax collector, but someone at the top of the tax collector pyramid scheme. He bought tax lots from the Romans and then brokered them to other tax collectors. Kind of like a mob boss controlling territories. The tax lots imparted the right to collect taxes on a commercial route or a region. The position was rife with corruption. It was common practice to extort more money from tax payers to make even more money. Kind of like paying a gang "protection money." And Zaccaeus was at the top of the pyramid.

The Jewish tax collectors were completely ostracized from Jewish society since they were collaborating with the enemy, the hated Romans who were occupying their homeland. Since they had to interact with these unclean Gentiles, the tax collectors were labeled as "unclean sinners." Perhaps more hated than the Romans themselves.

So, Zaccaeus, although wealthy through his profession, was cut off from any access to salvation because of the Pharisees and scribes. The Pharisees had a fixation on holiness, due in part to the reforms instituted by Ezra after the exile, and then formalized after the Maccabean revolt. In their world, salvation was obtained through rigid adherence to the holiness codes taught by the Torah and interpreted in the Oral Torah and later resulting in Mishnah and Talmudic writings.

And the common person agreed with their leaders. The tax collectors were unredeemable sinners.

But Jesus had a "kingdom" focus. And everyone was a potential citizen of the Kingdom of God if they had faith. So, while the Pharisees were erecting more and more barriers to people, represented to the extreme by Zacchaeus, Jesus refused to treat anyone as exempt from the Good News that the Kingdom of God was now available.

And that is why Jesus "saw" something when he looked at Zacchaeus: faith. Maybe just a mustard seed, but faith nonetheless. He saw that the Father was at work and that this man was close to the Kingdom of God.

No one else in that very religious society had the eyes to see Zacchaeus in the same way. If Jesus had not arrived on the scene, Zacchaeus would remain lost.

But Zacchaeus' transformation can be seen as the fruit of the faith that Jesus called forth. And he compares that faith to the Father of faith, Abraham.

This brings us to us. A religious spirit, maybe also described as pharisaism or legalism, tends to think of people as in or out of our holy club. But Jesus calls us to let go of the glasses of religious sectarianism and see the world through Kingdom lenses.

"My Father is always at his work to this very day; and I, too, am working" (John 5: 17).

Is the Father working in the heart of the pot-smoker, the atheist, the porn-star, the militant gay activist, the [you fill in the blank] that sits in the cubicle next to you at work, or occupies the desk next to you in class, or is on the treadmill machine next to you at the gym? Are you willing to open your eyes to what the Father is doing in their lives? Are you willing to eat dinner at their house or invite them over to yours? This is where the rubber of the Gospel meets the road.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Gospel of Paul

In my last entry, I wrote about the Good News of the Kingdom announced by Jesus and passed on to his disciples. The question in this blog-entry is, "What is the content of the Good News that was preached by the disciples? Did the message change from the one that Jesus announced?"

Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church about 30 years after the resurrection of Christ. In it, as  he defends the importance of the resurrection in the preaching of the Gospel, he makes this statement:

"Now brothers [and sisters], I want to remind you of the gospel that I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures..." (1 Cor. 15: 1-4).

If you go through the book of Acts and analyze the preaching of Peter and Paul, you will realize that they indeed still announce the Good News of the Kingdom of God, but their emphasis is on the person of Jesus Himself. It is the essential ingredients of Jesus' life that proves that He is indeed the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, and the Savior. He walked a sinless life full of miracles, signs and wonders. He voluntarily suffered as the Servant of God. He truly died and was buried. He rose again from the dead on the third day. He ascended into heaven, took his position at the right hand of God, the Father, and will stage a glorious return to reign on earth in the future. Thus, in His very person God is brought present to us and thus, the Kingdom of God has come near and has been made available.

The Good News requires a response: repent (turn the direction of your life from being self-directed like the rest of the world, to being Jesus-directed), and believe (place your trust and confidence in Jesus; or in another sense, make Him the Master of your life as you assume the apprentice/follower/disciple role).

The earliest confession of the church was "Jesus is Lord" (see 1 Cor. 12: 3).

A subtle change in emphasis has led to a kind of watered-down understanding of the Gospel in much of the West. The typical appeal goes something like this: "Is your life a mess? Accept Jesus into your heart and he will forgive you of your sins and make a way for you to live an abundant life and you will go to heaven when you die." This message appeals to a kind of consumer mindset. "What is in it for me?" Jesus as Savior is the main emphasis, rather than Jesus as Lord. Although it is true that a benefit of believing in Jesus is that your sins are forgiven and that you now have a destiny with God in heaven, it is not the emphasis of the Good News that we read in the New Testament, especially in Acts.

The Jesus People Movement of the 60's and 70's in Southern California introduced an interesting twist on this Gospel. "Look at the headlines! The end-times are around the corner. You better accept Jesus so you can be raptured (taken into heaven directly) and you don't have to go through the 7-year period of distress that is coming on the earth called "The Tribulation." Thus, the motivation here was even more self-centered. "I'm afraid of the consequences of not becoming a Christian, or, I don't want to miss out on the benefits."

A sign that we are soft-selling the Gospel message is the way we try to soften the decision itself. "With all heads bowed and all eyes closed..." We wouldn't want to embarrass anyone by having them respond publicly. When I got married, I did it publicly. I don't think my wife would have been thrilled if I just quietly bowed my head in the audience and then caught the eye of the minister to let him know I had said 'I do' in my heart. Perhaps it should be a little difficult to say "I do" to Jesus as well.

I think all of this has implications for those of us who think we have Good News to share with the world. Jesus Himself is the Good News. He lived, He died, He rose again. Thus He is the promised Messiah, the Son of God. Our call is to turn away from a worldly life and turn to Him, making Him our Lord. He is the Master who demands our allegiance. Oh yeah, and the benefits are incredible as well.

Pretty Good News, huh?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Is the Gospel?

The word "gospel" comes from the Greek word euangelion which literally means "good news."

We call the first four books of the New Testament "The Gospels." That is, they are the Good News that  Jesus announced and that his followers have sought to continue to announce to the rest of the world ever since he passed the baton to his disciples.

Just what is the content of the Good News?

In Mark's account, Jesus begins his public ministry this way:
"After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 'The time has come,' he said. 'The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!'" (Mark 1: 14-15).

Many theologians agree that the crux of Jesus' message is that something he called "The Kingdom of God" (or "Kingdom of Heaven" in Matthew's Gospel) had somehow arrived and was now present and available to anyone who would respond to it. 

Jesus communicated the in-breaking of the Kingdom through both his words and his actions. When he performed miracles like healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers and casting out demons, he was demonstrating and illustrating the reality of his message.

"But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20).

The term "Kingdom of God" needs to be understood in order to grasp just what Jesus was saying. We tend to think of a kingdom as a geographical location. But the New Testament uses the term to describe a condition more than a location. The Kingdom of God is the condition where God's rulership is acknowledged, where His dominion holds sway. Thus, when we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven..." we are asking God's dominion to come and be made manifest on earth where we live in the same way and to the same degree that it is manifested in heaven, the place where God's Kingdom rule is fully manifested.

Jesus Himself is the One who brought the Kingdom to earth. His favorite term for himself was "Son of Man." This is probably an allusion to Daniel's prophecy:
"In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed" (Dan. 7: 13-14).

So, Jesus is the One who brings the Kingdom to us, the One who is to receive our worship. His message ends with, "Repent and believe the Good News!"

To repent literally means "turn around." That is, the only response to the Good News is to turn away from whatever direction you are going and turn towards the Son of Man himself. Jesus brings the very presence of God and God's rulership to us. In order to enter into the Kingdom of God, we turn to Jesus and place our trust in him. 

Jesus, himself, is the content of the Good News. In him the Kingdom of God has arrived. Have you turned the direction of your life towards him and placed your trust in him? 

I'll write more on the Good News in my next blog.