Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: February, 2016

THE HOUSEHOLD OF GOD

 

The apostle Paul found himself in a unique position in the history of redemption. Originally a devout Jew, trained as a rabbi, he converted to Christianity and became “the apostle to the Gentiles.” He spent his ministry travelling through the Graeco-Roman world preaching the message of salvation far and wide. And people from every conceivable background responded. Churches were established throughout Asia Minor and Greece.

This was revolutionary. Up until this point Christianity had been largely a Jewish phenomenon. Christianity was an offshoot from Judaism. But now Gentiles were flocking into the church, and this created a theological problem. What was the relationship of these Gentile converts to Judaism? Should they become Jewish proselytes, get circumcised, and keep the Jewish Law? Or did they occupy a different place in the overall scheme of things. And Paul, the Jewish rabbi turned Christian missionary, found himself right in the very center of the controversy.

But for Paul it was more than just an abstract, theoretical problem. It was an intensely practical one as well. He had established churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece. These churches contained believers who came from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. But how were they to get along together? They had practically nothing in common. The Jews were used to living a very moral life, bound by strict rules and regulations. The Gentiles were used to wine, women and song. How, then, would believers from these two very different backgrounds to get along with each other in church?

Thus it was in this context that Paul wrote his epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. And while these two letters are very similar to each other, they are also noticeably different. Ephesians is apparently aimed at a predominately Gentile audience, while Colossians appears to have been addressed to believers from a Jewish background.

And thus Paul, in Eph. 2:11-3:13, comes to reflect on the Gentiles in God’s overall plan. And in the process he describes for us the nature of the universal church, which he calls “the household of God.”

Paul notes that the Gentiles, in their former life, were “without Christ, being aliens from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; NKJV). “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Paul goes on to explain that Christ, through His death on the cross, brought salvation to both Jews and Gentiles.

But now what? “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’ (v. 19). Here Paul uses two metaphors to describe the position of believers in Christ: he says that we are “fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God.” “Fellow citizens” suggests that Christians are all members of a common political entity, with all the rights and privileges thereof, as we would say. “Members of the household of God” means that we are all part of a common household headed by God Himself.

But Paul goes on to elaborate. This “household,” to change the imagery a bit, has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (v. 20). The church, the universal church, was founded by Christ Himself; at first through His own earthly ministry, and then through the apostles and prophets of the First Century church. And what happens since then is that in Him “the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). The church is “fitted together,” it is a coherent whole. Moreover, it is “a holy temple in the Lord.” The imagery would have been unmistakable for a First Century Christian, especially for one from a Jewish background. A temple was a sacred building, a building in which the divine presence resided. And thus God is pictured as being personally present among His people. The church is not just a human social organization; rather, it is characterized by the very presence of God Himself.

Thus it becomes apparent that what Paul is describing here is the universal church, the sum total of all Christian believers throughout history, from the time of Christ until now.

Thus Paul brings it all home to the specific church in Ephesus: “in Whom you also are being build together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v. 22). The church at Ephesus was a local expression of the universal church. Each local church is “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” It is not a mere social club; it is the communion of the saints built around the presence of God Himself. And specifically, this communion is realized “in the Spirit.” It is specifically the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, who is a t work in the church creating the spiritual life. At the practical level it is the Holy Spirit who creates the church and makes its ministries effective.

Because the church is based on union with Christ two logical corollaries follow: 1) True believers who are united to Christ are united to each other by virtue of their common bond with the Savior, and 2) anyone who is not united with Christ is not a part of the universal church, and therefore there can be no thought of “fellowship” between believers and unbelievers. In other words, evangelical Christians should be united with each other and separate from the world, including apostate liberal denominations.

Unfortunately two dangerous and opposing tendencies have made themselves felt in the modern evangelical community. The first is a spirit of accommodation which manifests itself in the misguided notion that the way to win others to Christ is to make ourselves look like the world. This was seen in the Neo-evangelical movement of the 1940’s and then in the “Young Evangelicals” and more recently in the “Emerging Church.”

But then there is the opposite tendency as well, manifested in self-described fundamentalist churches that practice “Second Degree” separation. That is, they separate not just from unbelievers but from fellow believers whom they deem to be in error over one doctrine or practice or another. Thus they refuse to have fellowship with other Bible-believing Christians because they use the wrong translation of the Bible or the wrong kind of music in worship. The result is endless divisions within the professing church, and this hardly glorifies Christ at all.

What we need to do is to focus on our relationship with Christ, and as we do so we will draw closer together with each other and farther apart from the world. And then the church will start to look like it should be.

THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION

 

We have seen that salvation is “by grace . . . through faith. . .not of works” (Eph.2:8,9; NKJV). Does that mean, then, that good works are unnecessary? That we can live like the devil and still go to heaven?

It all depends on what we mean by “unnecessary.” Salvation is not based on human merit – we do not earn our way into heaven. But we are required to repent – to show genuine remorse for the sins that we have already committed. And good works will naturally flow from salvation. If we have been genuinely born again we are changed persons – we do not live the way we used to live before. In other words, good works are not the necessary precondition of salvation, but they are the necessary consequence of it. We do not do good works in order to become saved; we do them because we are saved.

Paul brings this out in Eph. 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” He begins by saying that “we are His workmanship.” Spiritually the Christian is what he is as a result of what God has done inside of him. And what is God’s aim in “creating” us? We were created “for good works which god prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” And how did He “prepare them beforehand”? By providing us with the things that we need to live a godly life. He gave us the Bible to teach and to guide us; He gave us His Holy Spirit to produce His fruit in us. And yet this does not eliminate human responsibility. God gives us these things so “that we should walk in them.” We are the ones who do the walking. But we do it because of what God has done in our lives.

Paul goes on to explain the transformation in chapter 4, verses 20-24. Here he speaks of “learning Christ” and “being taught by Him.” He does not say that “you heard about Him,” but rather that “you heard Him.” You were, in some sense, at least, taught by Christ Himself.

And what did we learn from Christ? “. . .that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man . . . and that you put on the new man” (vv. 22, 24). The verbs “put off” and “put on” suggest the imagery of a change of clothing – you take off your old garments and put on new ones. It is a picture of how dramatic the change is in the new believer’s life. Furthermore, what we “put off” is “your former conduct, the old man” (v. 22). The change is so radical and dramatic that it is practically the same thing as discarding our old personal identity. The way we used to live before we became Christians was “corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” We went through life letting our self-centered desires guide and control us, and we became enslaved to sin as a result. That whole corrupt way of life we are to put completely behind us. In it’s place we are to “put on the new man” (v. 24).

But what is this new way of life like? First of all, it involves a profound inward change. Paul says that we are to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” As we commune with Christ in prayer and personal Bible study, the Holy Spirit changes our thoughts and desires, and enables us to see things differently. We have a new awareness of spiritual reality, a new worldview and a different set of values. We have different motives and desires. As a result we live differently than we did before. We live “in true righteousness and holiness” (v. 24). And this “new man” was “created according to God.” It is something God creates inside of us by the presence and power of His Holy Spirit, and it makes our lives conform to His own holy nature.

What all of this involves, practically speaking, to that Paul devotes the second half of his epistle. But the point of it here is this: salvation involves both justification and sanctification. We are saved from both the guilt and power of sin. Good works are the evidence of new life in Christ. Let us “pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

AMAZING GRACE

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The Conversion of Saul

Given the description of human sin and depravity in Eph. 2:1-3, one might ask why would God ever want to save a sinful lot like that? And yet God does. As Paul goes on to say, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . .” (Eph. 2:4,5; NKJV). God saves sinners because it is His nature to be merciful and gracious.

God is “rich in mercy.” Mercy is the capacity to feel pity or compassion for those in need. When a merciful person sees someone in dire straits, he reacts by trying to help that one. And God is not just merciful; He is “rich in mercy”; He has an abundant store of mercy. Thus He can feel compassion for the most depraved sinner.

And God has the “great love with which He loved us.” Our English word “love” is capable of a wide variety of meanings, some of them contradictory to each other. But the Greek word used here (agape) came to have a distinctly Christian meaning. The classic description of agape is, of course, I Corinthians 13: “Love (agape) suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself ; is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil . . .” (I Cor. 13:4,5). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

But how did He love us? How do we experience it? Our text says that He “made us alive together with Christ” (v. 5), “and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). We, of course, were not literally and physically resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven with Christ. We are still very much physically alive here on earth. What does our text mean, then? What is apparently referred to here our union with Christ, a union that is both positional and mystical. Positionally we have a new status with God. Our sins have been forgiven, and we have been adopted as God’s children and made heirs of eternal glory. We have a new relationship with God. In that sense we have been brought from death to life.

And all of this came about because once we believe and have sealed our faith in baptism we have become one with Christ. He is our representative; He acts on our behalf. Thus what is legally true of Christ is also true of us. He is righteous in the sight of God the Father, therefore we are as well. If He died, was buried, and rose again, then we are considered to have done the same as well.

But our union with Christ is also mystical. If we have been truly born again Christ is living within us through His Spirit. “For I through the law died to the law that I might live in God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:19,20). When I became a Christian I was born again; I received spiritual life from Christ. I have a new awareness, and new motives and desires. I want to please God in all that I do.

The passage emphasizes that all of this is the result of God’s grace, His pure, unmerited favor. “For by grace you have been saved by faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8,9). “Grace” (charis) means kindness, goodwill, favor. In this passage Paul draws a contrast between “grace” and “works.” Salvation is “the gift of God,” not something that is earned through our good works. We owe our salvation entirely to God’s good favor, not in anything that we have done or deserved. It is something that we receive “through faith” – we simply put our trust in Christ and His finished work on the cross.

And it is all of grace, “lest anyone should boast” (v. 9). God’s purpose in our salvation is that “in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). That a holy and just God would save guilty, hell-deserving sinners is extraordinary indeed. It is a truly remarkable display of grace and kindness, and we rightly stand amazed at it all.

What it all comes down to is this: why should God have saved me? When I look back on my own past life there was nothing there deserving of God’s favor and blessing. I was a sinner. I willfully did things that were wrong and I justly deserved to be punished for the sins that I had committed. Even worse, I was a sinner by nature. Sin was deeply ingrained in my very psychology. God owed me nothing but His just condemnation. But He saved. Out of His own pure grace and mercy, and not on account of anything that I have done, He saved me. I owe it all to Him. I can take no credit for it myself. And hence I owe Him all of my gratitude and praise. What a wonderful Savior!

“Jesus paid it all,

All to him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain,

He washed it white as snow.”

Elvina M. Hall

 

LOST SINNERS

            Salvation is all about saving lost sinners. But why does anyone, aside from a few depraved criminals, need to be saved? The answer is that we are all sinners. What we need to do is to see ourselves as God sees us. And it is not a pretty picture.

In Ephesians chapter 2 Paul gives us a vivid picture of a lost and sinful humanity. He begins by saying that we were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1; NKJV). But what does he mean by this? He goes on to elaborate.

First of all, he says that we “walked” in these trespasses and sins (v. 2). By this he means that we lived our lives this way; we routinely and habitually committed transgressions and sins in the daily courses of our lives. But we weren’t just acting independently in this. We were part of a larger and thoroughly corrupt social and cultural system. We sinned “according to the course of this world” (v.2), or “according to the age of this world,” as it might more literally be translated. The “world” is the whole organized system of human society; and the “age” is the period of time during which things are done a certain way. And during this present age we see human society acting in rebellion against God, routinely ignoring His commandments and breaking His laws. And we were all, at one time at least, very much a part of this wicked, godless system.

But there is even more to it than just that. When we “walked according to the course of this world” we were also walking “according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). This is a reference to none other than Satan himself, the unseen spiritual being who manipulates the actions of sinful human beings in order to achieve his own foul ends; and we, through our actions, played right into his hands. He is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience.”

The result, on our part, was a lifestyle marked by sin and depravity. “. . . among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath, just as the others” (v. 3).

First of all, he tells us that we “conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh.” Paul often uses the word “flesh” to refer to our entire fallen human nature, and not just to our physical appetites, although it can include them (cf. Gal. 5:19-21, where “the works of the flesh” include such things as “contentions, jealousies . . . selfish ambitions, heresies.”). “Lusts” are not necessarily sexual lusts, but any kind of self-centered desires. Sometimes in American society we try to dignify these desires by calling them “the profit motive,” “consumer demand,” or “drive and ambition.” But it all boils down to “me, myself and I.”

Paul elaborates further: the lusts of our flesh include both “the desires of the flesh” and those “of the mind.” Here the word “flesh” clearly does refer to the physical appetites, the insatiable craving for food, drink, sex, and the such like. But our sin doesn’t stop there. Alas, it also takes in the “desires of the mind,” of our thoughts and reasonings. It is not just a matter of our animal instincts, but it includes our intellectual life as well. We are driven by pride and ambition; we scheme and plot to get ahead. But our more refined sins of the intellect are just as sinful and rebellious as the desire for wine and women.

But why do we behave in such senseless and self-destructive ways? The answer to that question is the most disturbing of all. We “were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (v. 3). Our “nature” is our inborn quality or constitution. In other words, we were born sinners – it is part of our inbred nature.

Paul elaborates even further on man’s sinful, fallen condition in Eph. 4:17-19. There he says that the Gentiles walk “in the futility of their mind” (v. 17). The reasoning process leads to a false understanding of reality. And why? Because their understanding is “darkened” (v. 18). Why? Because they are “alienated from the life of God.” Why? “Because of the ignorance that is in them.”   And why is that? ”Because of the blindness of their heart,” or as it might better be translated, “the hardness of their heart” (NASV;ESV). As a result they are “past feeling” and have “given themselves over to lewdness, to work uncleanness with greediness” (v. 19). It is a vivid depiction of the psychology of sin.

In a word, what we have here is a description of total depravity. Sin has affected every part of a man’s being: his emotions, his intellect, and his will. And this is why Paul could say that we were “dead in trespasses and sins” (2:1) and “alienated from the life of God” (4:18). It is not a pretty picture.

This, then, is the condition in which God finds us. And this, in a nutshell, is why we need salvation. The remarkable thing is that God would even think of saving us at all. We were His enemies. We were in rebellion against Him. We had broken His law. He would have been perfectly justified in sending us all to hell. But He didn’t. In His grace and mercy He chose to save us instead. But more about that in our next blog post.