I love the story of Abraham. I mean everything from when he lied about who his wife was to protect his own hide, to the amazing promises God gave him. But there’s a story nestled in the Genesis account that paints a powerful picture – to miss it is to miss the core message of the Bible. You can find this story in Genesis Chapter 15, verses 1-21 (but I encourage you to read a few chapters before and after as well to get it in context). In a nutshell, God reiterated His promise to Abram (for the third time) then Abram asked for a sign. So God gave Him one. First God told Abram to cut some animals in half then He put Abram to sleep and talked to him about his future. Finally, God appeared as a smoking fire and passed between the pieces of the animals.
This section of Scripture describes a common practice in those days called ‘cutting a covenant.’ Basically, when two people wanted to make a pact, a deal, or a bargain with each other, they would cut some animals into pieces and lay them apart on the ground. A space was left between them forming a sort of aisle. Each party would then state their oath(s) aloud as they walked down the aisle. The meaning of the ritual was simple: ‘May I be cut into pieces like these animals if I don’t keep my promise(s) as I’ve stated in this agreement (covenant).’ Normally there were commitments made on both sides, but not in Genesis 15. Did you catch it?
THE COVENANT WAS BETWEEN GOD AND ABRAM (ABRAM’S DESCENDANTS ARE ALSO MENTIONED) BUT ONLY GOD MADE THE COMMITMENT OF DEATH IN CASE OF A BREACH OF CONTRACT.
The Old Testament is a collection of stories that teach spiritual truths. The writers of the Bible would often take a common practice in the Ancient world and turn it on its head in order to teach the God-followers of Israel something that set Him apart from the gods of the surrounding cultures. That’s why it can be so dangerous to take the Biblical texts and stories literally. That’s why we should not try to bring ancient practices into today’s world and live by them as if they were laws. The sole purpose of Scripture is to teach us what God is like.
The story of God walking through the torn carcasses of animals is a strange one no doubt. But it speaks one of the most beautiful truths in the Bible. God always keeps his promises. God didn’t need Abram to walk through the pieces or make a bargain with Him in order for God to keep His promise. Abram only needed to know that God always keeps his promises, period.
Let’s look more closely for a moment. In verses, 1-5 God restated His earlier promise to Abram that he was going to have a child. In verse 6 Abram simply took God at His word and God equated Abram’s faith with righteousness. It is good to operate on the light God has already given us – that is a big part of how we will be judged in terms of our actions in this life. So by all means, believe what God tells you. Belief a good thing. Our beliefs govern our actions. Now understand that Abram’s belief played absolutely no part in the covenant about to take place. In other words, nothing Abram did or believed in any way impacted the promise God made to him. This is important.
The land was a separate promise from the promise to give Abram children. The land represented God’s presence with the Israelites. But God’s promise in regards to the land extended way beyond establishing the Jews in Israel. Consider why God called Abraham in the first place:
I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (emphasis mine)
GENESIS 18:18, 22:18, AND 26:4 COMPRISE GOD’S PROMISE TO ALL MANKIND: THE WORLD RENEWED.
In other words, the land – and by implication, intimacy with God in a loving relationship – was not for the Jews alone. Not by a long shot.
GOD’S END GAME HAS BEEN ALWAYS GLOBAL.
On the heels of the promises regarding the land, note that we are not told that Abram believed God, but instead that Abram asked a question: “How will I know that it will one day be mine?” What a great question! Sounds like Abram was looking for proof because this time he did not believe God. Little did Abram know he was asking the one question that concerns all of humanity. How do we know that God has a plan to bless us, to renew us, and to renew the world?
I KNOW BECAUSE SOME 4000 YEARS AGO GOD CUT A COVENANT WITH ME.
No, that’s not a typo. Shadows and types and representatives, oh my! The Bible is full of them. Abram was my – your, our – representative in this covenant. Just like Adam represented all of mankind in the Garden of Eden, and Jesus is named the second Adam in his obedient suffering, so Abram was mankind’s representative, cutting the covenant of grace.
Now it is time to consider the location of this story within the greater historical context. Abram was an ancestor of Moses through whom the Law came. As a reminder, we are not told that Abram did anything to earn God’s promise. The covenant was purely an act of God’s grace. So, before the Law came, the covenant of grace was established. Think about it. If the covenant of grace had come after the Law, we would have reason to believe that there is something we must do for God to keep His end of the bargain. This story puts it out there on display: there is nothing for us to do (not even believe). Why? you ask. Because if we have a part now in keeping this covenant then Abram would have believed and walked through the pieces as our representative back then.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BELIEVE IT TO BE A PART OF IT.
Genesis 15:10: As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram… God put Abram to sleep so that he would have no chance of walking through those pieces. Why? Because God knew something we must all understand:
None of us will ever be able to keep covenant with God (Romans 3). We can’t even keep covenant with each other or ourselves! If there was any covenant to be made with mankind, it had to be on God’s side only. Our works and beliefs have nothing to do with God’s love for His creation or His absolute and unwavering commitment to make all things new. God Almighty cut a covenant with Abram as my representative, and now there is nothing I can do that will ever make God love me more or less than He did in that moment when He walked through the pieces! But there was a little part in the story that for many years I somehow missed. I bet you who are reading this have already seen it because it is so obvious.
One day it hit me what the pieces of those animals really were:
THE BROKEN BODY OF JESUS.
When God walked through the pieces, He knew that we were going to make a sacrifice out of His Son! “This is My body, broken for you…” Who cut the animals up? Abram did – in my place. I did it, through Abram. We did it. We cut up the sacrifice – the Romans stood in for me, for you, for us, crucifying Jesus on a cross. His Son’s death at our hands was the price God paid – in grim, gory detail – to shout out to the cosmos that love trumps all, that there is nothing we can do – not even murder – that will ever stop His love for us.
I pray that you understand – really understand – that God has no expectations of you as regards relationship with Him. He initiated it, He accomplished it, He will finish it, in your life and mine – all for the love He feels for everything and everyone He has made. Now that is Amazing Grace.
There’s something you gotta see, journey with me
It’s approximately 30 A.D.
In the land of Israel- the city of Jerusalem
But on the outside, there’s screams and loud cries
Through faith, this scene can be seen without eyes
The mean shout lies and seems to sound wise
As we inch through the crowd, we need to be cautious
A Roman execution, men on three crosses
But all the focus is on the one in the center
The gate closes behind you- no one can enter
The sight you behold is so odd, you’re stunned
The man hanging on the cross is God the Son
12 noon, it’s pitch-black because the sunshine’s lacking
Your minds can’t fathom this divine transaction
As slowly the sound becomes mostly drowned
You realize that you’re standing on holy ground
So forever will I tell
In three hours, Christ suffered more than any sinner ever will in hell
It’s where we see Your holiness- at the cross
We see that You’re controlling this- at the cross
We see how You feel about sin- at the cross
Your unfathomable love for men- at the cross
It’s where we see Your sovereignty- at the cross
We see our idolatry- at the cross
We know that there’s a judgment day- from the cross
May we never take our eyes away- from the cross
We’re now in the realm of the sublime and profound
With God at the helm, it’s about to go down
The Father’s wrath precise will blast and slice
The priceless Master Christ as a sacrifice
Willingly, He’s under the curse
To be treated as if the Son was the worst scum of the earth
The scene is the craziest
Jesus being treated as if He is the shadiest atheist
How is it the Messiah is in the fiery pit
As if He was a wicked liar with twisted desires?
The One who’s sinless and just
Punished as if He was promiscuous and mischievous with vicious lust
The source of all godly pleasure
Tormented as if He was a foul investor or child molester
How could He be bruised like He was a goodie-two-shoes
who doesn’t think that she needs the good news?
He’s perfect in love and wisdom
But He’s suffering as if He constructed the corrupt justice system
We should mourn at the backdrop
Jesus torn like He’s on the corner with crack rock with porn on His laptop
What is this, kid? His gifts are infinite
But He’s hit with licks for religious hypocrites
He’s the Light, but being treated like
He’s the seedy type who likes to beat His wife
He’s treated like a rapist, treated like a slanderer
Treated like a racist or maybe a philanderer
Jesus being penalized like He had sin inside
Filled with inner pride while committing genocide
I could write for a billion years and still can’t name
All of the sins placed on the Lamb slain
But know this: the main thing the cross demonstrated
The glory and the holiness of God vindicate
Closing: When evangelist John Wesley was returning home from a service one night, he was robbed. The thief, however, found his victim to have only a little money and some Christian literature. As the bandit was leaving, Wesley called out, “Stop! I have something more to give you.” The surprised robber paused. “My friend,” said Wesley, “you may live to regret this sort of life. If you ever do, here’s something to remember: ‘The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin!'” The thief hurried away, and Wesley prayed that his words might bear fruit. Years later, Wesley was greeting people after a Sunday service when he was approached by a stranger. What a surprise to learn that this visitor, now a believer in Christ as a successful businessman, was the one who had robbed him years before! “I owe it all to you,” said the transformed man. “Oh no, my friend,” Wesley exclaimed, “not to me, but to the precious blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin!”
Has the blood been applied to your life? Is your name written down in Heaven? Is your faith in Jesus and in Him alone?
This name is especially applicable to Israel because of the geographical position of their country. (Cf. Numbers 23:9, “The people shall dwell alone.”) They were away, off the beaten track of the nations, shut in, and, as it were, hidden, by the deserts on the east and south, the sea on the west, and the mountains on the north, from the rest of the world. But the expression in the text is applicable to all God’s people everywhere and always. They are his hidden ones. And we note concerning them –
I. THE FACT – THEY ARE HIDDEN.
1. Their physical life God often hides from those who would destroy it. Not always does he do this, but often, as Peter from Herod (Acts 12.; and cf. Obadiah’s hiding of the prophets, 1 Kings 18:4). And how often God has hidden his servants in wildernesses, glens, mountain heights, catacombs, etc.! The adversary would fain have destroyed them all, as the wolf the sheep; but they have not all been destroyed, the sheep yet outnumber the wolves.
2. Their spiritual life is ever a hidden one. For it resides not in themselves, but in another, as the life of the branches is in the vine (John 15.; Colossians 3:3). The principles that govern it are not known or understood or appreciated by the world. Its law of self-sacrifice, meekness, etc. Except by uncertain conjecture, the world knows nothing of its springs of action and its controlling motives. The practice of this life is also so different from the world’s life. It is meek, retiring, not loving notoriety; it pursues a lowly and unnoticed way; it has no eye for worldly pomp, no ear for worldly applause. It is not necessarily identified with any places, or seasons, or forms of worship, or order of men; but whilst generally using more or less of them, is independent of them all.
3. And this condition of God’s hidden ones is of their own choice. (Ruth 2:12; Psalm 91:1; Psalm 143:9.) They love to have it so. The hidden life is, in their esteem, the blessed, the secure, the eternal life.
4. It is God who hides them. (Cf. Psalm 31:20; John 10:28.) He does this by his providential care and by keeping them in his own love. And the majority of them he has hidden from men below in his own blessed presence in heaven. The Church on earth is a little flock indeed, not absolutely, but in comparison with the vast flock in the heavenly pastures, and there they are forever hidden from all the malice and might of men or of the devil.
II. WHAT THIS FACT IMPLIES.
1. Their preciousness in the sight of God. Things common and cheap we do not hide, or those for which we do not care. Jewels are hidden oftentimes, and God calls his hidden ones his jewels (Malachi 3:17). And how could they be other than precious, when we remember their cost! – “redeemed with the precious blood of Christ;” each one was bought with that price. And God deems them precious, also, for their own sakes. They can and will respond, ever more and more perfectly, to that love in the heart of God which, like all love, yearns for a response such as they only can give.
2. Their peril. God would not have hidden them as he has were they in no danger (see text). And how perpetually did our Lord bids us “watch and pray”! The world, the flesh, the devil, are ever bent on doing us harm. We are safe only as “our life is hidden with Christ in God”
3. Obscurity. The world knows us not, even as it knew him not. See how all but unbroken is the absolute silence of secular history as to the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and as to the history of his Church, until its marvelous growth and supernatural power compelled its attention. And still, the fame, layout, and honor of the world are things which none of God’s hidden ones may seek (John 5:41, 44).
4. Safety. (Psalm 91., the whole psalm.)
5. The love of him whose hidden ones we are.
III. TO WHAT IT SHOULD LEAD.
1. To the deep love of God. Whatever God has given you, he has given and he can give nothing like this – numbering you among his hidden ones.
2. To stay where you are. Dwell in the secret place of the Most High.
3. To have done with forebodings, murmurings, and helpless grief. Should such as you be chargeable with such things?
4. To confession of God’s love to you before your fellow men.
5. To all holy endeavors to bring others where you are
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
—Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)
Taking time to inventory the great challenges God has delivered me through today has allowed me to get to know Him more intimately. Jesus loved all my hurt and misconceptions about my life away, He turned everything around. I looked in the mirror and saw His character today and for that I say,,. Thank you, Jesus…
That sounds good, doesn’t it? I’ve had enough “heavy stuff” in my life, and I want to enjoy freedom. When you are overloaded with the cares of life you need some help. Your mind needs rest from worrying, your emotions need rest from being upset, and your will needs a rest from stubbornness and rebellion. So you need to be humble enough to call out to God and say, “I need help!” Your beginning doesn’t have to dictate your ending. Get God involved in every area of your life and allow Him to lead you into “real rest.”
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”
― Marcus Aurelius,
The early civilizations were well aware of the danger of pride and power and knew that this could destroy kings and empires if not held in check. And thus a philosophy was developed by the very wise Greco-Roman philosophers (lovers of truth) in order to help their rulers and themselves to be vigilant about their behavior, lest they destroy themselves by pride. And thus when any great general (be it an emperor-to-be, a war general, or any victor of a great battle) was honored by a great manifestation such as a triumphal entry into his city-state, a slave (a lowly of lowlies) would ride in the chariot with him and whisper in his ear that he should remember that he is not a god, but a mortal human being.
I think a better source than wiki might be a scholarly treatise aboutRoman triumphal marches by the historian Robert Payne in the book “Rome Triumphant: How the Empire Celebrated its Victories” Robert Payne, 1962, Barnes & Noble Books 1993. In the closing remarks of the book (pg 251), Payne remarks “…it was the anonymous slave standing behind the triumphator, whispering in his ear about the vanity of honours, who represents the greater triumph. The voice of the slave was the voice of humanity,never so desperate as when it passed unheard.– We do not know when the slave first rode in the triumphal chariot and held the golden crown over the conqueror’s head, or when he stepped down for the last time. We do not know whether the triumphator ever spoke to him in reply,or even glanced at him. He appears only briefly in the history of the triumph, and only once do we see him plain –on the Boscoreale cup,where he is depicted as a youth who seems to be filled with a sense of compassionate duty.”
You should be aware that this type of reminder of vigilance is still very meaningful and applied in many ways in modern life as a philosophical heir to the ancient traditition. The warning against pride and care to remember that life is a fleeting gift and should not be squandered on empty vanities that are really meaningless when considering the totality of life’s journey (the human actions of craving for power, riches, adulation, popularity) is just as important today as it was 2500 years ago. Instead of wasting time thinking that you are “God’s gift to humanity”, the reminder states, “try to live life as a good and simple, honest, kind and noble person (like the beautiful shaker hymn: “Tis a gift to be simple…”)
You might be aware of the yearly Christian tradition of Ash Wednesday in the beginning of the Lenten journey when people receive blessed ashes on their foreheads with the words “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return”. This is done not to depress people, but to remind them that true happiness of this life is totally dependant upon our own human goodness to be fantastically good people instead of selfish jerks.
Whenever a bishop (or cardinal) is elected to be a pope (a really tremendous honor in the Catholic Church), before the pope steps out into the balcony of St. Peter’s basilica to greet the City and the World and to be hailed as the new pontiff (Viva el Papa !) something really cool is done that is centuries old. A simple poor franciscan friar stands before the pope with a broom-like staff made with a pile of dry straw. The straw is lit and for a few seconds a huge flame bursts out, but is gone in a mere minute (a straw fire means an empty fleeting fanfare). (This is done three times) Each time the friar utters the words to the pope “sic transit gloria mundi) meaning “and thus passes the glory of this world”. This is of course a reminder that the great Roman pontiff (like the Roman generals and emperors) should remember that he is nothing more than a lowly servant and all the glory and power and wealth of this world is meaningless when compared to the true meaning of life : just be a very very good and kind and honest person – at the end of your life this will be the only measure of true meaning of the nobility and richness of one’s life.
Is it not cool how all of this applies to our lives today ?
Is good enough, good enough? Consider, if you will, that if 99.9 percent were good enough then
- 2 million documents would be lost by the IRS this year.
- 22,000 checks will be deducted from the wrong bank account in the next 60 minutes.
- 1,314 telephone calls will be misdirected by telecommunications companies every minute.
- 2,488 books will be shipped with the wrong covers on them each day.
- Over 5.5 million cases of soft drinks in the next year will be flat.
- 20,000 incorrect drug prescriptions will be written each year.
- 12 babies will be given to the wrong parents each day.
Obviously, being good enough is not good enough for life in modern society. So why do we think that being good enough is good enough to get us into heaven? You’ve heard people ask, “If I try my best won’t God let me into heaven?” or “Doesn’t God just require me to be better than the average human?” or “Don’t I have to just live a good life to be a Christian?” or “How could a loving God send good people to hell?”
Martin Luther, the reformer, wrote, “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has every plagued the mind of man is the idea that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all-holy God.” A Bible teacher used to say, “Man is incurably addicted to doing something for his own salvation.”
Let’s examine what the Bible has to say about being good enough.
I. God’s standard is perfection
In one sense, one can be good enough to get to heaven, but they would have to be perfect. God’s standard for entrance into heaven is perfection. On one occasion Jesus identified the two most outwardly religious groups of people in his day the Pharisees and the scribes and told his listening audience, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). On another occasion Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
God’s standard never falls short of complete righteousness and holiness. Anything less than perfection is sin. Think about heaven for a moment. Heaven is a place of the “no more’s” – no more tears, no more sadness, no more pain, no more sickness, no more death. All of those things are caused by sin. The “no more’s” don’t exist in heaven because sin does not exist in heaven. Heaven will be wonderful, not only because of what is present – God, but also because of what is absent – sin.
God’s standard of perfection is not arbitrary. God does not grade on the curve. He does not say, “Oh, you are close enough” or “You have tried really hard to live a good life.” God does not compare. “Well, Bill you are better than John so you are in and John is out, Betty, you are better than Sue, so come right on in.” That would be like trying to jump the Grand Canyon. So what if your jump thirty feet and set an Olympic record, you still splatter.
Now don’t get me wrong, for the most part we are all pretty good. I don’t suppose there are any rapists or murderers among us. If we were grading ourselves on goodness we would rank right up there pretty high on the scale. Let’s call ourselves Danny or Debbie Decent. From our perspective, we do everything right. We pay our taxes, pay our bills, pay attention to our family, and pay respect to our superiors. We are good people.
But God sees us differently. God sees what Danny and Debbie Decent choose to overlook. For as decent as we are walking through life, we make mistakes. For example, we stretch the truth. We might fudge, ever so slightly, on our expense report. We gossip about the new employee. From our perspective, these aren’t big deals. But our perspective does not matter. God’s does. And what God sees is a person wrapped in mistakes.
So let me ask you, is there any sin in your life? If so you are not perfect. You have not met God’s standard of perfection.
II. God’s solution is a pardon
Fortunately, there is good news. There is a solution, a remedy to our imperfection. God’s solution is a pardon found in Jesus Christ. Here’s how is works: “Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! . . . It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some imperfect people. . . . Our sins are taken care of for good” (Heb. 10:12-18 MSG). The apostle Paul described it this way: “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). When Jesus Christ, God’s Son, went to the cross he took our sins, our mistakes, our evil, and our unrighteousness. He was the ultimate sacrifice.
R.G. Lee, former pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, TN, was visiting Gordon’s Calvary at Jerusalem, possibly the site where Jesus was crucified. Lee told the Arab guide he wanted to walk to the top of the hill. At first the guide tried to discourage him, but when he saw that Lee was determined to go, he went along. Once on the crest, Lee removed his hat and stood with bowed head, greatly moved. “Sir,” asked the guide, “have you been here before?”
“Yes,” replied Lee, “2,000 years ago.”
And so have we. We were there because our sins nailed Jesus to the cross. Now we must go there to find redemption, to find our pardon for our sin.
So, when it comes to salvation, when it comes to going to heaven, whether we are more like Hitler with our evil or more like Mother Teresa with our purity, our sins are no longer the issue. The issue is what we do about Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s solution to our not measuring up to his standard. Jesus has already paid the price for our sin. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some imperfect people. Jesus now offers us a pardon, a release from our sin.
Think about it this way: if a criminal was handed a pardon that would release him from prison, the issue is no longer the crime but rather what he will do about the pardon. If he refuses he will remain in prison. The questions, why he is in prison?, and why is he not out of prison? have two different answers. He is in prison because he is convicted criminal. He is not out of prison because he refuse the pardon. Likewise, the answer to the question, why will a person be in hell? Is because he is a sinner, but the answer to the question, why will he not be in heaven? Is because he did not accept the pardon offered in Christ.
Let me see if a story will not help clarify this issue. Many years ago a young boy shot and killed a man while gambling. In those days, murderers were sentenced to hang. But the townspeople were so concerned for the young lad that they gathered a petition asking the judge to pardon the boy. Finally, the judge agreed but only on one condition. The judge would wear a clergyman’s robe and collar and carry the pardon between the pages of the Bible.
As the judge approached the boy’s cell, he could hear the young man cursing and swearing at him. “Get out of here, preacher, I don’t want what you have to offer.”
“But, son,” the judge replied, “You don’t understand.”
“I understand fine,” said the boy. “I don’t want what you have to offer.”
The dejected judge left the jail. Later the guard told the boy that it was the judge who was dressed like a minister. Between the pages of the Bible was an authorized, sealed pardon for his release.
When the day of execution arrived, just before they put a black sack over the boy’s head, they asked if he had anything to say.
He replied, “I am not dying because I killed a man. I am dying because I rejected the pardon.”
You see the issue is not your sin. The issue is what you will do with Jesus Christ. Our fault before God is not necessarily our sin – He made a remedy for that. Our fault before God is rejecting the pardon.
“Yea, but,” I can hear some people say. And then the question: How could a loving God send good people to hell? The question itself reveals a couple of misconceptions. First, God does not send people to hell. He simply honors their choice, as when the judge honored the choice of the condemned boy who rejected the pardon. Hell is the ultimate expression of God’s highest regard for the dignity of man. He has never forced us to choose him, even when that means we would choose hell. As C. S. Lewis stated: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it.”
No, God does not “send” people to hell. Nor does he send “people” to hell any more than the judge sent the boy to be hung. That is the second misconception.
The word people is neutral, implying innocence. Nowhere does scripture teach that innocent people are condemned. People do not go to hell. Sinners do. The rebellious do. The self-centered do. The ones who reject God’s pardon do.
So how could a loving God send people to hell? He doesn’t. He simply honors the choice of sinners.
III. God’s salvation is through personal faith
So what must we do? We must, by faith, accept Jesus’ finished work on the cross as God’s only accepted way to enter heaven. God’s salvation is through personal faith in Jesus Christ. We must trust in what he has done for us.
Ten of the eleven world religions teach a salvation by good deeds. Christianity stands alone with its emphasis on faith rather than works for salvation. The Scriptures say, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Salvation is a gift – we don’t work for it, we don’t deserve it, we don’t earn it. We simply trust God for what he has done through his son, Jesus Christ.
It is like a medicine. You can believe a certain medicine will help you, but until you trust it enough to take it, it won’t do anything for you. Faith is more than believing in God. It is trusting in him to the point of receiving Christ into your life.
Was there a time when you honestly realized that you were a sinner and admitted that to God? Do you truly understand that Christ took your place on the cross? Do you understand that the real issue is not your sin, but what you will do with Jesus Christ? Have you received Christ alone for your salvation?
C.S. Lewis halted a generation of would-be converts in their tracks when he famously said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
Lewis’ candor is certainly a strange sales pitch today, when Christianity is more often presented as good medicine for life’s ills than a costly call to faith. Today, Jesus is more often equated with the cure-all to felt needs—happiness, inner peace, life purpose and more— than the objective truth of the gospel. “Jesus will make your life better” is the gist of it.
But how does this pitch line up with the gospel? It hardly squares away with Jesus; words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 6:24.) If this is Jesus’ invitation, then we need to drastically change the current call to faith. Instead of making cheap promises, we need to ask the harder question: “Will you follow Jesus even if your life doesn’t get better?”
If we’re not careful, we inadvertently imply that if one only focuses enough on Jesus, one’s circumstances will get better, and better, and oh-so infinitely better. Too often evangelistic zeal truncates the gospel to be more accessible, more compelling, and more applicable to the felt needs of an audience. Are you sad? Jesus is your joy. Are you depressed? Jesus is your comfort. Are you confused? Jesus is your guidance. Surely, these are all important truths that are part of real faith. But they are not the whole package. If we’re not careful, we inadvertently imply that if one only focuses enough on Jesus, one’s circumstances will get better, and better, and oh-so infinitely better.
The False Promise Gospel
But the trend becomes even more disturbing as we observe the fallout of our Jesus-will-fix-all-my-problems kind of faith.
This gospel presentation misleads people to become more focused on their problems than on Jesus Himself. While they step into faith, they stay center stage. And unfortunately, when circumstances do head south, they are ill-equipped to deal with them. When something bad happens, all is lost. Many of us have had tear-filled conversations with friends who are questioning why God would let bad things happen to people, let alone to good people, and even more so to His people. When these questions go unanswered, many people leave faith behind because they are tired of waiting, or they do not trust God to actually show up. Instead they go off in search of their own, more immediate solution. They want comfort and happiness. They’d prefer the port. Ultimately, they are still the center of their lives, not God.
The sincerity of such struggles should not be undermined, nor the biblical precedent for lamenting overlooked. The Bible shows many of God’s people questioning His inactivity or perceived absence. However, it seems that people want to follow Jesus—even enthusiastically for a season—but then jump ship when their lives don’t get better, easier, brighter—you name it.
Perhaps we need to stop and examine if we have set them up for this by portraying a circumstantial spirituality that stops short of the robust faith of the Bible.
Jesus does make your life better. Jesus certainly is the ultimate problem-solver, and it is true that we will find our deepest purpose satisfied only in the life He offered on two crooked beams. But Jesus by no means promises a better life in the sense of all your circumstances. In other words, following Jesus doesn’t mean that everything will go smoothly, that every aspiration of your heart will be achieved, and that all your loved ones will live to see 100. Yes, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light but so is the gate wide that leads to destruction, and narrow the one that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14; 11:30.)
Somehow people get the notion that when God blesses, it means that He will give us great things and perfect circumstances—and right now. Or, if God’s blessing is upon us we can expect to have better lives than those who do not believe in Jesus. Blessing equals easier and better. Conversely, sometimes people believe that extended discomfort means there is something they have done wrong, or a lack of faith which inhibits God’s blessing. But what if this is a misconstrued concept of blessing? Can’t the blessing of God involve pain, suffering, waiting and holding on to a truth in spite of our circumstances? Isn’t it a blessing to be disciplined by our loving Father even if it causes discomfort?
In his classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan writes a beautiful hymn about the difficulties of the Christian journey: “This Hill, though high, I covet to ascend, The Difficulty will not me offend. For I perceive the Way to life lies here: Come pluck up Heart, let’s neither faint nor fear; Better, though difficult, the Right Way to go, Than Wrong, though easy, where the End is Wo.”
I can imagine Paul joining in the singing of this song. In his second letter to the Corinthians, after recounting all the challenges he faced following Jesus faithfully—in being mistreated, punished, sorrowful, poor—he concludes that in having nothing, he possessed everything (2 Corinthians 6:1-10.) When Paul’s life and circumstances were destitute, and when he could have been reasonably despondent, he experienced joy. How? He practiced an objective, God-focused Christianity rather than a subjective, me-focused Christianity. He was marked by a spirituality that takes the focus off oneself.
A Fresh Start to Faith
Our circumstances, as important as they may be, are not the primary guidelines for our faith. When we make personal benefits and rewards the starting point of our faith instead of praise that we owe our Savior, we start a walk of faith that is backward in its priorities. Yes, a great truth about God is that He is for us, with us, and even acts on our behalf. But it is His Truth that impacts our circumstances, and not the other way around. Our circumstances, as important as they may be, are not the primary guidelines for our faith. What is supposed to be our hope, our trust, despite whatever may come is that God is true, good, eternal and persistently consistent. Our trust is in God’s character, revealed ultimately in the gospel, and not in how congruent our circumstances are with what we know of God.
Often, circumstances will not be as easy or comfortable as we would prefer. The Bible paints an honest picture of reality: You will sin, you will have challenges in relationships, people will hurt you and you will hurt them, the world is set against you and evil is actively working against you. So, what do we do? The one consistent action of the people of God is a recognition of who God is, what he has done in the past and what He promises to accomplish at the end of time. We can rest our faith on the permanence of this truth.
A tragic accident takes a husband from his family. The unexpected loss of a job leaves parents and children fearful and without provision. A young woman continues to wait for marriage, but each of her boyfriends says he still needs more time.
Sometimes we have the idea that if we just knew what direction to take, following God would be easier. But it never seems to work that way. How is God operating in our lives? Can we really know His will, and, if so, how can we know it?
“I’m totally confused. How in the world do I find the will of God for my life?” I cannot number how many times through the years I have heard that question. I am sometimes plagued by this question myself about what path am I to pursue to be in alignment with such a “Mighty God”.
I could probably list at least ten ways that God leads His children today, but I will limit myself to the four that I think are the most significant methods of God’s leading.
1. God leads us through His written Word.
As the psalmist said:
Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)
Whenever you see the phrase “This is the will of God” in Scripture, you can count on it: that’s God’s will. You also know that to disobey is to reject His Word. Other clear indications of His leading are the precepts and principles in Scripture.
Precepts are clearly marked statements, such as “Abstain from sexual immorality.” That’s like saying, “Speed Limit 35.” What is speeding? Anything over 35 miles an hour. That’s a precept.
Then there are principles in Scripture, and these are general guidelines that require discernment and maturity if we are to grasp them. Paul writes of “the peace of God” guarding and guiding our hearts and our minds (Philippians 4:7). That’s like the sign that says, “Drive Carefully.” This may mean 40 miles an hour on a clear, uncongested road, or it may mean less than 10 miles an hour on an ice-covered curve. But it always means that we must be alert and aware of conditions . . . we have to be discerning. There is no sign large enough to list all the options you have when you’re behind the wheel. So you must know the rules of the road, follow the signs that are there, and use all your best judgment combined with discernment.
You will never, ever go wrong in consulting Scripture. Just be sure you pay close attention to the context. Don’t use the “open-window method,” letting the wind blow across the pages of your Bible and then closing your eyes and pointing to a verse and saying, “This is God’s leading on that.” If you do that, you could end up with “Judas went away and hanged himself” as your verse for the day! Don’t go there.
2. God leads us through the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Read the following statement carefully:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)
The inner prompting of the Holy Spirit gives us a sense of God’s leading, although that leading is not always what we might call a “feel-good” experience. In my own life, my decision to accept the presidency of Dallas Theological Seminary was not an easy one. Ultimately, it was an “at-peace” decision, but it was not what I would have wanted or chosen. I found all kinds of ways to resist when the position was first offered to me. I wrote the president and the chairman a two-page letter, well thought through, carefully stated, and full of Scripture. It should have convinced anybody that I was the wrong person for the job. Except that God was busy convincing them—and, later, me—that I was the right person. Although it went against my own wishes at the time, I could not resist the compelling, all-powerful prompting of the Holy Spirit.
So I can testify from personal experience that you can believe you really know God’s will, and you may be dead wrong. But if you are, the prompting of the Holy Spirit will be nudging you within.
The mind of man plans his way,
But the LORD directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
It’s easier to steer a moving car—just get the car rolling and you can push it into the filling station to get the gas. But it’s hard to get it moving from a dead stop. So you’re on your way, you’re making your plans, you’re thinking it through. In the process, stay open. By doing so, you may well sense inner promptings from the Holy Spirit steering you.
That inner prompting is crucial, because much of the time we just can’t figure it out.
Man’s steps are ordained by the LORD,
How then can man understand his way? (Proverbs 20:24)
(I love that!) When all is said and done, you’ll say, “Honestly, I didn’t figure this thing out. It must have been God.” Talk about mysterious! The longer I live the Christian life, the less I know about why He leads as He does. But I am absolutely confident that He leads.
3. God leads us through the counsel of wise, qualified, trustworthy people.
This does not mean some guru in Tibet or a serious-looking stranger at the bus stop. This refers to an individual who has proven himself or herself wise and trustworthy and, therefore, qualified to counsel on a given matter. Usually, such individuals are older and more mature than we are. Furthermore, they have nothing to gain or lose. This also means that they are often not in our immediate family. (Immediate family members usually don’t want us to do something that will take us away from them or cause us or them discomfort or worry.)
At critical moments in my own life, I have sought the counsel of seasoned individuals—and they’ve seldom been wrong. That’s been my experience. However, you must choose your counselors very carefully. And just as the best counselors are usually not your family, often they are not your best friends either. Wise and trustworthy counselors are persons who want for you only what God wants. Such persons will stay objective, listen carefully, and answer slowly. Often they won’t give you an answer at the time you ask for it. They want to sleep on it; they want to think and pray about it.
4. God leads us into His will by giving us an inner assurance of peace.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul wrote to the Colossians, “to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful” (Colossians 3:15). God’s inner assurance of peace will act as an umpire in your heart.
Although peace is an emotion, I have found it wonderfully reassuring as I’ve wrestled with the Lord’s will. This deep-seated, God-given peace comes in spite of the obstacles or the odds, regardless the risk or danger. It’s almost like God’s way of saying, “I’m in this decision . . . press on . . . trust Me through it.”
The will of God for our lives is not some high-sounding theory; it is reality. We have looked at some of the ways God leads us into His will. Now comes the bottom line: we have to live out His will in the real world.
Doing God’s will demands a decision. And that decision requires faith and action. You can’t see the end, so you have to trust Him in faith and then step out. You have to act. Faith and obedience are like twins; they go together.
Hebrews 11:6 tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a re-warder of those who seek Him.”