Tag Archives: Faith

— Useless vs. Fruitful — Two Competing Faiths. Which One Is Yours?

Two millennia ago Jesus’ sacrificial death established faith as the determining factor in whether an individual spends eternal life in heaven. It is a seismic distinction from other religions, which place the burden on man to earn salvation through some combination of good works, obedience, and holy behavior. But with Christ’s ascension from the grave, belief in Him as Lord and Savior was suddenly wholly sufficient to avoid sin’s consequences (that is, eternal darkness and suffering in hell).

In the years that followed, however, most of Christendom reverted back to emphasizing works as an integral part of salvation. That unbiblical view survived for hundreds of years, taught by a church intent on using such heresy to acquire wealth and power. Thankfully, the Reformation arrived in the early 1500’s to counter this false teaching. In time, faith regained its proper place in Church doctrine as the defining element of salvation.

Unfortunately, in recent decades a different but equally dangerous doctrine has emerged inside the Church. This one sits at the opposite end of the theological continuum and teaches that anyone who verbalizes belief in Christ instantaneously secures his or her salvation, irrespective of how they live in the future. A profession of faith in Christ as Savior guarantees eternal life, regardless of whether any evidence exists to support the claim.

Scripture, however, clearly teaches that this version of Christianity is as heretical as ‘salvation by works.’ Its fatal flaw is its failure to recognize that not everyone who expresses a belief in Christ truly believes. Many who claim faith in Jesus continue to place their trust elsewhere. They simply deceive themselves.

The apostle Paul understood this. He notes that some inside the Church are “corrupt and unbelieving” and “such people claim they know God, but they deny Him by the way they live.” (Titus 1:16a, NLT). These people willingly, even enthusiastically, declare Jesus Lord and insist they knew Him personally. So how could anyone argue that such people possess a counterfeit faith?

Paul could, and did, on the basis of their lifestyles, which denied Christ. His insight is critically important to understanding the Christian faith. Those who possess genuine faith in Christ live lives modeled after His example. Their lives profess Him Lord as loudly as their words.

This truth may cause some to cringe. Doesn’t that suggest good works play a role in salvation, they wonder. Does that mean eternally life rests as much on effort as it does on faith, they ask.

The answer to both questions is an emphatic, ‘No!’

Paul explained the proper relationship between faith and works in his powerful letter to the church at Ephesus. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10, NKJV, emphasis mine).

As in his other epistles, Paul affirms the truth that salvation is by faith alone. We cannot earn God’s mercy and play no role in working our way into heaven.

That said, Paul immediately reminds his readers that God created us to advance His agenda and further His kingdom. We do this by practicing good works and committing ourselves to the lifestyle He prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

Our works and lifestyles have no impact on our salvation. They are not part of the equation. But they do represent essential evidence of our faith. Without them we have no assurance of our salvation. In fact, without good works we can be certain our faith is inauthentic.

James, one of Jesus’ brothers, provides an excellent exposition of the significance of good works in the life of a believer. He begins with a rhetorical question. “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?” (James 2:14, NLT). After providing a couple examples that highlight his point (failing to feed and clothe believers who are hungry and naked), he declares, “Faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” (James 2:17, emphasis mine).

James uses powerful language to communicate his point. He actually states that faith without works is both dead and useless. It is fraudulent and serves no purpose. The person who practices such faith possesses no faith at all. Genuine faith always produces good works.

He continues, “Now someone may argue, ‘some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” (James 2:18).

James dismantles the argument that faith and good works can operate independent of one another. He shows that good works reveal faith. In their absence faith does not exist.

This leads to a very important question. What constitutes good works? Specifically, what type of good works evidence genuine faith?

James gives us two insightful examples: Abraham and Rahab.

He tells us, “Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete… So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.” (James 2:21-22, 24).

Abraham exhibited good works by surrendering to God the one thing most important to him, his only son Isaac. Abraham loved him dearly. Nothing would cause him as much pain as boy’s death. And yet, this is what God required. And so Abraham obeyed. Though God eventually spared Isaac’s life at the last second, Abraham proved his faith by his act of sacrificial obedience.

And so it is with us. God expects us to live sacrificially for Him. At various times in our lives God will test our faith. He will require us to place on the altar something of great value to us. He will ask us to crucify it to faithfully carry out his will. Maybe He will ask us to leave a lucrative job; or move to an unfamiliar country; or sell our house and donate the proceeds to further His Kingdom; or give up a hobby entirely and invest the time in spreading the Gospel. Maybe He will ask us to do all of these.

Whatever the case, we can be sure the decision will require significant sacrifice. And it will be difficult to obey; impossible, in fact, without the Holy Spirit’s strength. Moreover, we can be sure His call to sacrifice will occur more than once. In fact, it will occur throughout our lives. Each instance will be an opportunity to grow in faith and demonstrate our trust in Christ.

In his second example, James tells us Rahab, “was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.” (James 2:25-26).

You may recall that Rahab was a prostitute who lived near Jericho. She housed the scouts Joshua had sent to investigate the land and hid them when the king’s guards came in search of them. On orders from the king, the guards demanded she bring the men outside. Instead, she informed the guards that the two men already had left the city and told them the route the scouts had taken. After the guards departed, Rahab sent the two men on their way in the opposite direction.

Rahab demonstrated good works by risking her life to do God’s will. Acting in faith, she protected the scouts and sent the guards on a wild goose chase. She not only jeopardized her life and freedom (the king likely would have imprisoned or executed her if he had learned the truth), she jeopardized the life and freedom of her family. Her faith compelled her to trust God – not the circumstances.

And so it is with us. God often calls us to put our faith into practice by setting aside our best interests, our freedom, and perhaps even our life. Once again, our faith matures as a result and we grow closer to Christ. Obeying God in such instances is never easy. Our flesh demands we look out for ourselves. Our friends will likely tell us we are fools to obey God when such an existential risk exists. At times like these, then, we must remind ourselves what James said. “Faith by itself is not enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”

All of this may sound a little too extreme. Some of us might decide to follow the less radical version of Christianity. Unfortunately, a less extreme form of Christianity does not exist. While the specifics of how God calls us to live in obedience will differ from person to person, there are some commonalities.

  • God will test our faith.
  • He will do so by calling us to take action that substantively demonstrates our trust in Him.
  • He will ask us to surrender those things most important and dear to us.
  • He will send us on assignments that jeopardize our safety, reputation, and/or freedom.
  • He will give us tasks that, to some degree, disrupt our comfortable and organized lives.

As you live this vibrant expression of faith under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, you will draw closer to the Lord and more clearly understand His plans for you.

What an exciting way to spend the rest of your life!!

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Follow God – not fear.

How many of us allow fear to influence our understanding of God’s will and dictate the extent to which we serve and obey Him? When the Holy Spirit prompts us in a direction we don’t want to go how many of us use a rational response to explain our disobedience?

  • I can’t move to that neighborhood, Lord. It’s too dangerous and I don’t want to put my family’s safety at risk.
  • I can’t go on a mission trip there, Lord. It’s too hostile to Christianity. They might put me in jail if they learn I’m a believer.
  • I can’t leave my job to work at a non-profit, Lord. The reduction in salary would force me to work another ten years before I retire.
  • I can’t tell people at work about my faith, Lord. That’ll jeopardize my career and sabotage my next promotion.
  • I can’t give generously to the church, Lord. That’ll undermine my 401k and diminish my quality of life in retirement.

Whenever we use logic and commonsense to refute God’s call and justify our disobedience we demonstrate a lack of trust. Such actions reveal doubt and a failure to exhibit the courage of our convictions. We may want to follow God down whatever path He lays out but fear paralyzes us.

To overcome that paralysis we need a reminder that God’s omnipotence does not require favorable circumstances to emerge victorious. He can accomplish anything through anyone. In fact, He is far more likely to use the weak and unqualified to achieve the remarkable and miraculous, then He is to use the powerful and competent to accomplish the ordinary.

We must remember that God often assigns endeavors that appear impossible, sends us on journeys that look perilous, and instructs us to pursue objectives that seem overwhelming. And He does so for several reasons. First, it forces us to rely entirely on Him. It is only in the crucible of total helplessness that our trust in God truly flourishes. After all, if we can accomplish God’s will on our own strength than we learn only self-reliance not God-reliance.

Second, it refines and matures our relationship with Christ. In situations where our focus must remain on God constantly, our understanding of Him and His character develops and deepens. We come to know Him more intimately, and we become more like Him in every detail.

Finally, it prepares us for a new mission. As we respond obediently to God’s direction today, He equips and prepares us for our next assignment tomorrow. In time our baby-steps of faith grow into giant leaps of faith.

Take some time today to ask God for an assignment that strengthens your faith, fuels your trust, and draws you closer to Him. And make that a prayer habit moving forward.

God’s Ways vs. Our Ways.

As Jesus’ ministry neared its end Scripture tells us “He began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again on the third day” (Matthew 16:21, NKJV).

It is a shocking revelation to those who have followed Him since the beginning of His ministry. They expect Jesus to establish His kingdom on earth soon, not die and disappear into the clouds. His pronouncement is inconsistent with everything they believe about Him. In fact, Peter had just identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Surely a glorious and powerful empire is more appropriate for God’s Son than a brutal and horrifying death – honor and authority more fitting than indignity and weakness.

Peter is certain Jesus is disoriented; that He has experienced a moment of confusion, and has misspoken. He decides to set Him straight and remind Him that His destiny lies in greatness not brokenness, in splendor not infamy. So Peter pulls him aside. Steeped in confidence from Jesus’ recent praise, Peter rebukes the Lord saying, “Far be it from you, Lord; this will never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22 NKJV).

Imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus chastises him. “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23, NKJV). The reprimand catches the attention of the disciples. For the first time they understand that God’s plan for Jesus is remarkably different than their expectations. He is going to die an ignoble death, not lead a revolution.

Perhaps even more unsettling is what it means for them. They must wrestle with the reality that God’s plan for them is also remarkably different than their expectations. Jesus will not install them as leaders of His kingdom in the immediate future. Instead their commitment to Him will have perilous consequences.

To their credit they do not abandon the Lord at that moment, though they understand that Jesus’ life and death serve as a model for them, and now realize they too must surrender their lives to God – and that doing so changes everything.

I wonder how many of us are like Peter? We are certain our ambitions represent God’s will. And if the Lord disagrees then we need only correct Him. How many of us, like Peter, are mindful of the things of men but not of God; are mindful of the things of this world but not of the world to come?

As you contemplate God’s plan for your life and the possibility that it may diverge dramatically from your own plans, consider this verse from Isaiah. “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, NIV).

How do you adopt the Lord’s thoughts as you own? By studying His word and watching how Christ interacted with those around Him. Notice who he invests His life in and how He serves them. Listen to what He teaches and the priorities He exemplifies. As you read Scripture ask God to reveal His ways to you through the lifestyle model Jesus provides. It is only as we become more like Christ that our thoughts and ways mirror God’s.

What it Means to Believe

One of Christianity’s foundational doctrines asserts that a belief in Jesus is necessary for eternal life. Which raises a crucial question: what does it mean to believe? Many of us think it’s nothing more than cognitive acquiescence – if we say we believe, then we believe. We are convinced that on Judgment Day God will simply ask whether we believe in His Son, and if we respond affirmatively then we are whisked away to enjoy eternity in heaven.

Imagine that approach playing out at your local courthouse. The bailiff brings a defendant before the judge and reads the charges. The judge asks the defendant how he pleads and whether he committed the crime. If the defendant replies ‘not guilty’ and affirms his innocence then the judge sets him free. No trial takes place. No evidence is presented. The judge requires no corroborating proof to support the defendant’s claim of innocence.

We scoff at the absurdity of such a scenario and express relief that courts issue verdicts only after a rigorous examination of the evidence rather than simply trusting the defendant’s plea. And so it is with God. He doesn’t ask if we believe and then ignore any evidence to the contrary. Instead, he examines our lives in great detail – every thought, word, and deed. Not to determine whether we are worthy and have earned a place in heaven. None of us are worthy and heaven cannot be earned.

But our thoughts, words, and actions do evidence what we really believe. Authentic belief transforms our hearts and our souls. That’s why the apostle Paul encourages us to, ‘Examine ourselves as to whether we are in the faith,” and to “Prove ourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). He tells us that unless evidence supports our claim of belief then we have become disqualified – Christ does not abide in us.

James addresses this issue with the early church declaring, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble” (James 2:19, NKJV). The demons not only believe in God but tremble in fear of Him. But none of them will spend eternity in heaven. James is not suggesting that belief in Christ is insufficient. We know that by faith alone we are saved.

What James asserts is this: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17, NKJV). Godly works, thoughts, and words always accompany genuine faith. In their absence a fraudulent faith exists – one that cannot withstand God’s scrutiny. James summarizes that view with this rhetorical question, “If someone says he has faith but does not have works, can that kind of faith save him?” (2:14). The obvious answer, of course, is no.

Take time this week to examine your life. Does a growing body of evidence support your claim that you believe? Is your life increasingly marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If not, ask God for authentic faith that transforms your heart and every facet of your life.

Too Busy for God.

I wonder how many of us fail to follow God’s plan for our lives because we convince ourselves that in the absence of egregious sin, any morally neutral activity or ambition enjoys God’s approval. As long as our pursuits don’t violate explicit biblical commands we assume God allows us enough latitude to do what we want. This thinking drives many of us to spend our days enjoying hobbies and chasing pleasures that do not directly contravene God’s Word.

However, avoiding obvious disobedience does not necessarily indicate actual obedience. Often the reasonable and adequate diverge as much from God’s plan as the scandalous and perverse. The Parable of the Great Supper illuminates this truth. In it those invited to enjoy the great supper (a metaphor for heaven) decline to attend.

One guest explains, “I have bought a piece of ground and must go and see it.” Another says, “I have bought five oxen and am going to test them.” A third excuses himself with good news. “I have married a wife and therefore cannot come.”

Most of us would agree that these explanations are reasonable. There is nothing morally defective about surveying your investments or validating the value of a purchase. And wanting to spend time with your new bride seems rather admirable. Yet on hearing their excuses the host proclaims that none of those invited would enjoy the feast. Why? Because they prioritized reasonable and admirable activities over something of greater importance: fellowship with the host.

So it is with us. When we allow good and practical pursuits to consume us then they become distractions from our primary purpose in life: developing a vibrant relationship with Christ. A lifetime neglecting that purpose (or just giving it lip service) jeopardizes our seat at the table of the marriage supper of the Lamb. We simply won’t recognize Christ when He returns. Worse, He won’t recognize us.

That theme emerges again when Jesus chastises a pair of potential disciples for delaying their obedience to His call, despite legitimate motives: one wants to bury his deceased father and the other wants to say goodbye to his family. No rational person would consider those explanations unreasonable. Yet Christ does. Not because those things are bad or inappropriate, but because they preempted faithfulness to Christ’s call. The men prioritized family commitments above immediate obedience to the Lord.

Take time this week to read these passages from the ninth and fourteenth chapters of Luke. Ask God to reveal their application in your life and reveal what good or practical pursuit you’ve allowed to displace your relationship with Christ, and what reasonable activity or ambition has distracted you from immediate obedience to the Lord. Then take steps to put those disruptive undertakings in their proper place.

Considering Christ? Count the Cost First.

One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity is our failure to explain to the spiritually lost what coming to Christ entails. Perhaps spurred by an eagerness to see our friends and loved ones join the family of faith we often neglect to share Jesus’ expectations for those who choose to embrace him as Savior. Instead we tend to emphasize the benefits of calling Christ Lord and ignore the considerable cost of doing so.

That silence, however, does a great disservice to those considering Christ. Not only does it appeal to a potential believer’s self-interest – the ultimate foundation of sand that will eventually collapse – it contradicts Jesus’ specific teaching. He told a large crowd that followed him, “If you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost” (Luke 14:27-28a, NLT).

That must have seemed an odd instruction to those in the crowd (even as it does to us). So Jesus explained his rationale by comparing the journey of faith to a contractor who calculates the full cost of building a structure before he begins construction. “Otherwise,” Jesus says, “he might complete only the foundation before running out of money.”

His point? Those who fail to understand the cost of coming to Christ risk abandoning their faith when persecution arises or God tests them. And they’re much less likely to persevere when circumstances grow difficult. So while countless benefits accrue to those who surrender their lives to Christ, that path involves many challenges as well. Jesus even told his disciples, “difficult is the path that leads to life and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Few find it because it is not the well-trod path. It is the difficult path because committing ourselves to Christ costs everything. That may surprise those who have bought into the disastrous and deadly lie that Christ makes no demands of his disciples. But Jesus paints a very different reality to that crowd of potential followers, as He tells them, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33, NLT). To avoid any confusion Jesus’ states his expectation in remarkably clear and unambiguous language.

Some readers will bristle at that verse. They will insist that Jesus does not require His disciples to forsake anything, let alone everything. They will perform all manner of linguistic gymnastics to explain away Jesus’ plain meaning. Such people refuse to count the cost. They count only the blessings; and in the process pursue the broad path of destruction rather than the narrow path of eternal life.

I encourage those considering Christ to count the cost first. Not to discourage you from embracing Jesus as Lord but so you enter into that relationship with your eyes wide open. He does indeed offer a multitude of promises and blessings to those who surrender their lives to Him, both in this world and in the one to come. But that commitment sends you down a difficult path and imposes a steep cost. If it didn’t, Jesus would not have said as much – and He would not have advised us to count the cost.

Mission Impossible

In the film Mission: Impossible Tom Cruise’s character, Nathan Hunt, must navigate a litany of perilous challenges to complete assignments that save lives and uphold justice. The severity of his circumstances, however, always makes success an unlikely outcome. Death seems far more probable. Despite the odds, Hunt always accepts the challenge and true to Hollywood form always manages to complete the mission in some spectacular, though thoroughly unrealistic, way.

Did you know that Scripture recounts the details of a real-life Mission: Impossible from twenty-five hundred years ago? The plot unfolds in Susa, the winter capital of the Persian Empire, where King Xerxes reigned. After deposing his wife, Queen Vashti, for an act of brazen disloyalty, the king holds a contest to find a suitable replacement and ultimately selects a young Jewish maiden named Esther, who captivates his heart.

The excitement surrounding her ascension to the throne, however, eventually subsides and gives way to anxiety and horror when Esther learns of a plan to slaughter every Jew in the Persian Empire. Her uncle Mordecai, who had adopted her as a child and raised her as a daughter, encourages her to intervene and ask the king to revoke the decree. She resists, explaining that anyone who approaches the king uninvited is subject to death. She wants to help her people but the fear of death paralyzes her.

In response, Mordecai issues a stinging rebuke. “Don’t think for a minute that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other source, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows, perhaps you were made queen for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14, NLT).

His message emphasizes two points. First, God will accomplish His plan with or without her. She is uniquely positioned to serve as God’s agent to rescue the Jews but will suffer severe consequences if she acts selfishly instead.

Second, it is likely that God coordinated her selection as queen for this exact moment, so she could appeal to the king directly and preserve thousands of Jewish lives. Mordecai challenges her to recalibrate her thinking; to recognize that God blessed her so she could bless others – not so she could pamper herself with a lifestyle of luxury.

Similarly, God has placed each of us in a position to serve as His agents to those around us. He has blessed us with wealth, influence, intellect, and diligence. But as with Esther, those blessings represent an opportunity to bless, serve, and help others. Like Esther we may be tempted to rationalize why those blessings are primarily for our benefit.

But we must resist that perspective. Like Esther we must step out in faith and recognize that God has put us in our current position for such a time as this and move forward with bold confidence that God will accomplish His will through us. We must set aside our personal interests and diligently seek the Lord’s guidance on how He would have us use the gifts, talents, and blessings He has bestowed on us. More often than not that will involve sacrifice, service, and selflessness. It may seem like Mission Impossible but with God all things are possible.