Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Early Church (2)

This is part 2 of chapter 6 of my book, Biblical Glasses.

What is a Christian?

Simply put, a Christian is someone who has the Spirit of God living in him or her. J.I. Packer answers his own question: “What is a Christian? … Not merely a do-gooder, but someone converted [by God to be] … committed to the Living Christ, a born again person washed from his sins through Christ’s blood and now indwelt by Christ’s Spirit.”

Christians are brand new people on the inside. The Holy Spirit gives them new life, and they are not the same anymore. Christians are not reformed, rehabilitated, or re-educated; rather, they are recreated from within, born again to live in union with Jesus Christ (see Colossians 2:6,7).

A Christian by dictionary definition is “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.” However, Christianity requires not a profession but a certain possession. In possession of Jesus Christ, by grace through the Holy Spirit, a true Christian possesses perfection, which is God’s requirement for salvation. That is not to say a Christian is perfect! Possession of Jesus Christ causes God to focus on the perfection of His Son, who perfects the imperfect believer by His presence within them. The Bible says:

By one sacrifice [God] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. … ‘I will put My laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds. … Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more’ (Hebrews 10:14-17).
Christians cannot claim to behave perfectly, but they can claim to possess perfection in Christ, knowing Jesus as Savior. The Bible says: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. … We make [Jesus] out to be a liar and His Word has no place in our lives” (1 John 1:8,10). The Christian will not be completely perfected, made pure and sinless and given a perfect body, until in heaven (see Philippians 3; Romans 8). The goal of the Christian in this life is not to glorify God in perfection, but in progression.

Sanctification is progression; when a person is born again, when someone, by grace, accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior, a process called sanctification begins. Sanctification is “the state of growing in divine grace.” Sanctify means “to set apart to a sacred purpose” and “to make productive of holiness.” The new believer grows toward perfection, becoming more like Jesus Christ, the author and demonstrator of the perfection necessary to dwell in God’s presence.

Sanctification is not easy. While undergoing the process of sanctification, the Christian will likely be disciplined as a means of purification. But that is certainly better than being condemned to death, as all humans deserve. Sin has already been condemned by God, so anyone who has sinned—that is to say, everyone—is dead in their sin as a slave to the sin nature, separated from God. When we possess Jesus Christ, we are no longer dead in sin, no longer bound by the law that condemns, no longer slaves to the sin nature, and no longer separated from God; instead we are alive in His Spirit, the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul said:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,
because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the
law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was
weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of
sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order
that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not
live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).
The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, enables us to believe in Jesus as our Savior, helps us grow to act as Christ directs, and empowers us to serve as God wills. J.I. Packer summarized God’s plan:

By wisdom God found a way to justify the unjust justly; in love He gave His Son
to bear death’s agony for us; in justice He made the Son, as our substitute,
suffer the sentence that our disobedience deserved; with power He unites us to
Christ Risen, renews our hearts, frees us from sin’s bondage, and moves us to
repent and believe; and in faithfulness, He keeps us from falling, as He
promised to do, till He brings us triumphantly to our final glory. We do not
save ourselves! Neither the Father’s saving grace, nor the Son’s saving work,
nor our own saving faith originate with us; all is God’s gift. Salvation, first
to last, is of the Lord.

We do not become believers by following some manual or using some technique. Our conversion is a result of God’s implanting His Holy Spirit in our hearts, giving us new life and power to begin living for Him.

Hank Hanegraaff, Bible scholar and author known as the Bible Answer Man, sums it up well by saying, “A Christian is someone who has had their thinking transformed according to the power of God (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:17-24).” We are justified by grace through faith, sanctified in Christ, and glorified in heaven. It is not our own ability that makes us Christians; instead, as Hanegraaff implies, the Holy Spirit transforms us, sometimes over a period of many years, to comprehend the message of the Gospel. Charles Spurgeon adds, “I know you will be too proud to [accept Christ as Savior], unless God by His grace should humble you.” Max Lucado says, “Seeing Jesus is what Christianity is all about. … To see His majesty and to imitate Him, that is the sum of Christianity.” Lucado goes on:

Ponder the achievement of God [for His glory]. He doesn’t condone our sin; nor
does He compromise His standard [of perfection]. He doesn’t ignore our
rebellion, nor does He relax His demands [for us to obey Him]. Rather than
dismiss our sin [which He cannot do, because He is perfectly just], He assumes
our sin and, incredibly, sentences Himself [to death]. God’s holiness is
honored. Our sin is punished … and we are redeemed. God does what we cannot do,
so we can be what we dare not dream: Perfect before God.

How do we become Christians? Ultimately it is by God that we become Christians. Jesus said: “No one can come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draws him. … No one can come to Me unless the Father has enabled him” (John 6:44,65). God, in His sovereignty, can choose freely to use and save whoever He wills. In fact, He has already done so!

The Bible says: “[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:9). The Bible also says: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Romans 8:28-29). Additionally, the apostle Paul writes:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has blessed us in
the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For He chose us in
Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In
love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in
accordance with His pleasure and will—to the praise of His glorious grace, which
He has freely given us in the One He loves. In Him we have redemption through
His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace
that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And He made known to
us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in
Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their
fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under One Head,
even Christ. In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to
the plan of Him Who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His
will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the
praise of His glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the
Word of Truth, the Gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in
Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, Who is a deposit guaranteeing our
inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise
of His glory (Ephesians 1:3-14).
Furthermore, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, [wrote] to God’s elect, strangers in the world, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:1-2). God has shown us how to know if our names are written in the Book of Life, if we are counted among His elect: It is by faith in Jesus Christ (see Romans 8-9). It is not enough just to know the Gospel; even Satan knows God’s Word. We must, by grace, let the Holy Spirit reign as Lord in our lives by truly trusting in the perfection of Jesus Christ. All we need to have assurance of salvation is Jesus as our Savior, which God makes possible.

Christianity does not require us to earn salvation. The Bible says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is nothing anyone can do to become perfect. We have all made mistakes; again, no one deserves salvation! This is the beauty of Christianity: It is not something you do; it is something done to you and for you. Christianity is the only religion in the world where everything is already done.

We have nothing to offer the Creator God of the universe. The Bible says: “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) in the eyes of the Lord. We must only bring our sin, in repentance, to the cross of Christ, where that sin was crucified with Christ. Jesus Christ’s perfect life, perfect redemptive sacrifice in death, and rise to life in glory is all that was needed to permanently conquer sin and death and make perfect all those who, by grace, trust in Him. As further testimony of God’s love, the gift of Jesus Christ is free! We do not earn Jesus; we simply accept Him as God’s gift!

When, by grace, we accept Christ, our sin, which was poured on Him at His crucifixion, is exchanged for His righteousness, which is poured on us upon trusting Him as Savior. Sin is completely worthless; righteousness is completely priceless. Is this an equal trade? No. Is God an awesome God? Yes!

If you sincerely trust Christ alone for your salvation, then the Holy Spirit has come into your life. You are a Christian! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you will continue to trust in Christ alone for eternal life. You will desire, in time, to follow in the footsteps of Christ, to act as Christ directs, and you will be empowered to serve God and do His will.

Is Jesus your Savior? Would you like Him to be? You can pray directly to God, asking in the name of Jesus for Him to come into your heart. Ask Him to forgive your sins and save you from death! Jesus said: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in” (Revelation 3:20). You may or may not feel redeemed, but if your prayer was sincere, then you can be sure of your place in heaven!

Now be willing to truly know Jesus, which comes through faithful obedience to His Word. Knowledge of His Word comes through Bible study, church attendance, prayer, telling others about Christ, and engaging in Christian fellowship. Being a Christian is not easy, but “Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me’” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Jesus also said: “If anyone loves Me, he will obey My teaching. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23).

The gift of eternal life is given freely in mercy to all who, by grace, accept the truth of the Gospel. If we think we must do something to help guarantee salvation, then we are in effect saying Jesus’ sacrifice was not sufficient in itself. Remember Jesus, by saying: “It is finished” (John 19:30), told us that His work was completely sufficient for the redemption of all His people. Nothing else was needed. It is a worthy goal to honor God by trying to obey His law, but we glorify Him and truly honor Him primarily by accepting His chosen method of salvation for us, through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

That said, there are several things we need to do, once we have faith, to be fruit-bearing, devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Just as people are moved to action by their beliefs, faith in Jesus Christ brings good works and a fruit-filled, changed lifestyle. The Bible says: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). Christ’s substitutionary death enables us to do things for Him out of gratitude. Faith without works is useless (see James 2:14-26).

Although our faith is made complete by our works, we are not obligated to complete our faith by our works, for we can never repay God for His mercy. But as true Christians, we have the privilege of serving Christ out of gratitude for His redeeming sacrifice. True belief in Christ will result in confession of sin and repentance from sin, as well as actions that show our love for Him: Obedience to God and generous, loving care toward others!
Just as we go through stages of physical life on earth, there are similar stages in our walk with Christ. Physically, we start off as infants, and we grow to walk and talk like toddlers. We learn more, tell others what we know, apply our learned knowledge, and continue growing. Eventually we are capable of teaching others, including our own children.

Spiritually, we start off just hearing the Gospel and learning to accept its truth, thereby accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior. We grow as Christians by serving others, fellowshipping with other Christians, and hearing, reading, and studying God’s Word. That is part of the process of sanctification mentioned earlier. We are formed, transformed, and conformed—purified by the Holy Spirit. We make Jesus Christ not only our Savior but also our Lord!

We sin less. Sins of commission, those things we ought not to do but we do, are reduced; sins of omission, those things we ought to do but we do not do, are more noticeable. We strive, although sometimes difficult, not to commit pre-meditated sins. We realize more and more we are free from the burden of sin. Maturing as Christians, we teach others about what God has done in our lives. We learn to “set apart Christ as Lord [and] always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have” (1 Peter 3:15).

Christians are drawn closer to God, not only becoming more like Him, but also coming to know Him more. The apostle John wrote: “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him Who is true. And we are in Him Who is true—even in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the True God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Christians grow to understand that the price of forgiveness was immeasurable. Christians realize that grace is truly amazing; we may never grasp how much love and grace it takes to repeatedly forgive the nearly infinite number of offenses we commit against our Creator. Christians also grow to comprehend faith in Christ as rational.

Faith is reasonable for the Christian; there is no conflict between faith and reason. Non-Christians, however, will attempt to rationalize their unbelief until the “Holy Spirit, often working through sound apologetic arguments, opens their minds to see the truth of the Gospel.” Unfortunately, many unbelievers fail to realize the importance of knowing their place in eternity. Eternity is undoubtedly a difficult concept for humans to comprehend. We do not see the eternal, so we often blindly place our beliefs concerning eternity on the back burner. Regarding eternal salvation, the stakes may not seem high, but wow, how high they truly are!

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