Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Soteriology


The Conversion of Paul

The Conversion of Paul: Parmigianino, ca. 1530


So far we have seen that the Messiah will establish peace and justice on the earth, and that was certainly good news for ancient Israel.  But how will that come about?  And what does it mean for us individually?

The questions are addressed in the later prophecies found in chapters 40-66 of Isaiah.  [Most modern critics argue that this section of the book was not written by the Isaiah who lived in the 8th Century B.C. but by a “Second” and “Third Isaiah” who lived much later.  But this is based on the assumption that the 8th Century Isaiah could not have accurately predicted events that happened long after he had died.  But that assumption runs counter to everything that the Bible says about itself as being the inspired Word of God.  And conservative scholars point to the striking literary unity of the book and the fact that several New Testament authors quote passages from the second half of the book and attribute them to the 8th Century prophet.  We take it then that these were prophecies that came from the pen of Isaiah himself.]

In Isaiah 39:5-7 Isaiah had warned King Hezekiah of the coming Babylonian captivity of Israel.  This would have been disturbing news indeed.  But Chapter 40 begins by predicting a brighter future, and goes on to reassure Israel that God is sovereign (40:12-31) and faithful (41:8-20), and promises a future restoration.  But what will this restoration look like?  And how will it take place?

In Chapter 42 we are introduced to a figure who is described as the “Servant” of the Lord, and this Servant is clearly the Messiah himself.  God, speaking through the inspired prophet, says, “Behold!  My Servant whom I uphold, / My elect One in Whom My Soul delights!” (Isa. 42:1; NKJV).  On the one hand He is described as God’s “Servant” – Christ the Son of God plays a subordinate role to God the Father – and yet He is “Me Elect One in Whom My Soul delights.”  He enjoys a special relationship with God the Father.

The Servant, then, will “bring forth justice to the Gentiles” (v. 1).  What is surprising about this is that one would ordinarily think that the Messiah’s reign would primarily benefit the Jews – that they would be restored in the land and that the Messiah would reign over them.  But God has a broader purpose in mind, one that involves all mankind.

But how will He accomplish this?  The text goes on to say that “the coastlands shall wait for His law” (v. 4).  The “coastlands” were different countries scattered around the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.  The law (Heb. “torah”) would be the instruction and directions given by the Servant himself.  For these the coastlands “wait” in patient expectation.  In other words, justice will prevail when human beings are subject to the will of God.

But the text goes on to say that God will give the Servant “as a covenant to the people” (v. 6).  This would point to the New Covenant that God will write on the hearts of believers and under which God will forgive their sins (Jer. 31:31-34; cf. Ezek. 36;24-27; 37:21-28).

But what kind of effect will this have on us as individuals?  The text describes it this way:  The Servant will be

“As a light to the Gentiles,

To open blind eyes,

To bring out prisoners from the prisons,

Those who sit in darkness from the prison house.”

(vv. 6,7).

At first this might seem like a reference to the Jewish captivity in Babylon.  But the text specifically refers to the role of the Servant, and says that He will be a light to the Gentiles.  Obviously something larger is in view here.  The blindness is a spiritual blindness, the inability to see spiritual reality.  The apostle Paul could describe the Gentiles as walking “in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated form the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph.4:17-19).  But when we come to Christ we have “learned Christ” and “have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus” and are “renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Eph. 4:20-23).  We have become spiritually enlightened, and can now see and understand spiritual reality.

But the text also says that the Servant will “bring out prisoners from the prisons.”  Sin is a form of bondage.  Again the apostle Paul could say, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14), and “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (7:23).  But when we become Christians, “our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.  For he who has died has been freed from sin” (Rom. 6:6,7).  Sin is a form of slavery, and salvation frees us from that slavery.

But His manner of doing this is striking.

“He will not cry out, nor raise His voice,

Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street.”

(v. 2)

When here on earth His manner was calm and gentle.  He did not scream nor shout, but He spoke as One who had authority (Matt. 7:28,29).

And then it says,

“A bruised reed He will not break,

And a smoking flax He will not quench . . .”

(v. 3)

The “bruised reed” and “smoking flax” point to people who have been hurt or wounded by what has happened to them.  They have been chastised by God and feel the pain.  But the Servant is gentle with them.  He does not break them or quench them.  They will live and see another day.

But to accomplish all this will be a terrible ordeal for the Servant himself. He will eventually have to endure the cross.  But the text says that “He will not fail nor be discouraged, / Till He has established justice in the earth . . .” (v. 4).

God’s method, then, is this: He will bring justice to the earth.  He will punish sin.  But He will also provide salvation, and that involves freeing individual human beings from their sin.  And so He comes to us, gently, shows us our sin, and offers us forgiveness through faith in Christ, the One who died for our sins.  And all of this was predicted seven centuries before Christ actually appeared on earth!  May we each find peace and joy in Him!





The Ethiopian Eunuch


If Christ died, then, as an atonement for sin, and His death is of infinite value, does that mean, then, that everyone is automatically saved?  While that may seem like a logical conclusion, it is not what the Bible says.  There is a condition which must be met.  “He who believes in the Son; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36; NKJV).  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  We are justified (made righteous in the sight of God) by faith.  We must believe on Christ in order to be saved and have our sins forgiven.  We are save by faith in Christ.

But what does it mean to “believe on” Christ?  The Bible defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1; NASV, ESV).  Faith is the firm conviction that what God has said is true and will come to pass.  His word can be relied upon.  People demonstrated their faith by acting upon God’s promises.  “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6; NKJV).  Hebrews 11 goes on to give us a long catalog of those who acted in faith.  “These all died in faith, not having received the promise, but having seen them afar off, were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (v. 13).  In salvation faith means to put one’s faith and confidence in Christ, to rely actively on Him and trust Him only for your salvation.

Faith is more than mere assent to a religious dogma.  “You believe that there is one God.  You do well.  Even the demons believe – and tremble!” (James 2:19).  The demons, obviously, are not saved.  It is one thing to believe something about Christ; it is something different actively to put your trust in Him.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved . . . “ (Acts 16:31).

True faith is accompanied by true repentance.  You cannot ask God to forgive your sins unless you genuinely acknowledge that they are sins and you desire to turn from them.  There must be a genuine sorrow over sin.

“’Now, therefore,’ says the Lord,

‘Turn to Me with all your heart,

With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’

So rend your heart, and not your garments;

Return to the Lord your God,

For He is gracious and merciful,

Slow to anger, and of great kindness;

And He relents from doing harm.”

(Joel 2:12,13)

And a genuine sorrow over sin will include a desire to be free from it and live a life that is pleasing to God.  “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8).  These are not works that you perform in order to earn your salvation or to merit anything from God, but rather evidence that your repentance is real and genuine.  God will save you from your sin; it is all a work of His unmerited favor.  But the question is, do you really want to be saved?  And if so, form what?

But then our faith in Christ should express itself by publicly identifying ourselves with Him, and this is done in baptism.  Peter could conclude his sermon on Pentecost by saying, “Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Jesus said, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him will I also confess before My Father who is in heaven.  But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32,33; cf. Lu. 12:8,9).  Some evangelists have used this as a justification for the altar call, but there is no evidence from Scripture that such a practice existed in the early church.  Rather, baptism was the means of publicly identifying oneself with Christ.

Several things should be noted here.  First of all the assumption throughout the New Testament is that the person being baptized is a professing believer.  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27,28; cf. Rom. 6:3), the implication being that everyone who has been baptized  has actually been incorporated into the universal church, the body of Christ.  Moreover, there is no direct command nor any clear example in the New Testament to warrant the practice of infant baptism.

Secondly, baptism is not a good work that somehow merits salvation, nor is a sacrament that somehow works automatically to impart salvation.  Rather, “. . .baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .” (I Pet. 3:21; NASV; cf. ESV).  Baptism is the formal, outward means by which we declare our faith and allegiance to Christ, and as such formally begins the relationship with Him.  It is the faith itself, however, which makes us righteous in the sight of God.  Baptism is the outward expression of the inward reality, the sign and seal of our faith.

This, then, is how we are saved: we must repent of our sins, put our trust in Christ as our Savior, and publicly identify ourselves with Him in baptism.  “. . .if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9,10).



But if God is both just and compassionate, what should He do about man’s sin?  Justice demands that He punish it; but compassion wants to forgive the sinner.  And if He punishes sin He destroys man, whom He originally created.  What should He do?

It should be noted that the problem was created by man, not by God.  There is nothing wrong with justice; there is nothing wrong with compassion.  The problem is man’s sin, and man created the problem by doing things that he himself knows is wrong.  The problem lies with us, not with God.

But that being said, what should God do?  There is one possible way out of the dilemma.  If a substitute could be found, someone to take our place and pay the penalty for our sins, God could forgive us while at the same time uphold His justice.  Sins could be punished and forgiven at the same time.

But who would be willing to do such a thing?  And more to the point, who would even be qualified to do such a thing?  The substitute would have to be absolutely innocent himself, or else he would merely be paying for his own sins.   And he would have to be a person whose life would be equal to that of millions of human beings combined, or else he could be a substitute for only one other person.  The rest of us would be lost.  The whole scenario seems highly unlikely.

But then something extraordinary happened.  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4,5; NKJV).  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

As it turns out Jesus was the only Person qualified to fill the role.  First of all, He was completely sinless Himself.  He was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  He can sympathize with us, having lived here on earth as a human being, yet He never succumbed to temptation.  Yet because He was also God, God the Father’s own dear Son, His blood was of infinite value, and could atone for the sins of all those who would come to Him in faith.

And yet at what a cost to God the Father!  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .”  Jesus was the Father’s “only begotten Son.”  God has many adopted children, but Jesus was His only eternal Son by nature.  And it was His only begotten Son that He sent into the world to die for our sins.  Jesus was born under the humblest circumstances, was arrested under false charges and given a mockery of a trial.  He was mocked, scourged and suffered an agonizing death on a cross.  And all of this happened to God’s only begotten Son, the only human being who was absolutely without sin Himself, the last Person on earth who deserved to die.  No greater travesty of justice ever occurred in human history.  And He did that of us, to atone for our sins and obtain forgiveness for us.

Christ would not have done it unless it had been absolutely necessary to satisfy the demands of divine justice.  “. . .without the shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:23); and yet “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).  Therefore God “sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10).

At the same time God would not have sent His Son to die for our sins if He had not had a great love for us.  “But God demonstrates His own love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  God sent His Son to die for us, not because we were lovable – “we were still sinners” – but because of the pity and compassion He has for His ruined and suffering creatures.  And He demonstrates His love for us, but by excusing our sin, but by sending His own Son to die on the cross and atone for it.

“Amazing love, how can it be

That Thou my God shouldst die for me?”

Charles Wesley

In this way the demands of both justice and compassion can be met simultaneously. Sin is both punished and forgiven at the same time.  God is able to “demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).  “Mercy and truth have met together; / Righteousness and peach have kissed” (Psalm 85:10).

It is important to mention that this is the reason why there is no salvation outside of Christ.  It simply not true that Jesus was one of several different great religious teachers down through history, and that “all roads lead to heaven.”  Man’s real problem is his sin and guilt before a holy God, and the only solution to that problem is Christ’s atonement on the cross.  Christ was much more than a great prophet or religious leader; He is the Savior, the only Savior.  “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all . . .” (I Tim. 2:5,6a).



Pieter Claesz: A Vanitas Still Life


Why do people die?  At first that seems like a rather stupid question – they just do.  It is an inescapable fact of human existence.  And if you are an atheist that is all there is to it – there is no special rhyme or reason to life.  We just exist, and we all die.  But if we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being, a God who is loving and compassionate, why would He create us to die?

An obituary is a sobering commentary on human existence.  Here is someone’s loved one – a husband or wife, a father or mother – who was once full of life and energy.  He or she worked, played and loved, and had a real impact on the lives of others.  And yet in that person’s later years he was feeble and frail; and now he lies silent in the grave.  If God created life, then why does He let us die?

“The days of our lives are seventy years;

And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,

Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

(Psalm 90:10; NKJV).

The biblical answer to this is sin: “. . .through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin . . .” (Rom. 5:12).  Death is an anomaly, but sin is also an anomaly; and the Bible connects the two together.  We die because we sin.  Death is the curse that God placed upon the human race because of our sin and rebellion.  We cut ourselves off from our Creator, the source of life, and so we die.  The amazing thing is that we live as long as we do.

Death actually has three aspects to it: spiritual, physical and eternal.  It is important to realize that before we die physically we are already dead spiritually.  We “were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).  “. . .we all once conducted ourselves in the lust of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath . . .” (v. 3).  Paul could say of the pagan Gentiles of his day that they “walk in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart, who being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph. 4:17-19).  Even though we are physically alive we are spiritually dead.  God is absent from our lives, there is an absence of any real love for God or for righteousness, and we go through life living for ourselves, seeking our own personal advantage, and gaming the system.  There is no spiritual life in us.

And then, of course, there is the fact of our actual physical death, and this points to a problem in nature itself, for death is often the result of outward circumstances, of injury or disease.  The fact of the matter is that all of nature has been affected by our sin and rebellion, and is, to a large extent, dysfunctional.  “For the creation was subjected to futility . . .  the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs . . .” (Rom. 8:20,22).  Even Christians are not exempt from physical pain and suffering: “. . .but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (v. 23).  Thus when we look at nature we are struck by a paradox: everywhere we can see evidenced of intelligent design, but at the same time we see pervasive dysfunction.  Things live and flourish; things die.  Life was designed to function one way; it now functions in a profoundly different way.  It is a creation out of concord with its Creator.  It is a creation wrecked and ruined by man’s rebellion against God.

But it does not end there.  Death is also eternal – we are cut off from God forever, and bear the brunt of His wrath for all eternity.  The Book of Revelation describes the Last Judgment, and says, “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them.  And they were judged, each one according to his works.  Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire.  This is the second death” (Rev. 20:13,14; “Hades” is a Greek word for the underworld, the abode of departed spirits).   “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).

It is terrifying to think about hell, but the Bible tells us this is what we must expect if we continue in our sin and rebellion against God.  We have offended a just and holy God.  He is infinite and all-powerful.  By rebelling against Him we have placed ourselves under His wrath and condemnation.  The consequences are fearful.

“For the wages of sin is death . . .” (Rom. 6:23).  “Wages” are what we have earned, what we deserve.  And what did we earn by rebelling against God and living our lives apart from Him?  A life of misery and woe here below and an eternity in hell.  These are the consequences of human sin and folly.

The reality, then, which confronts each and every one of us is the certain prospect of death; and the question each one of us must ask himself is this: “Where will I spend eternity?”  Let none be so foolish as to ignore the question.

But, as we shall see, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ibid.).



Caravagio: The Young Bacchus

The Bible tells us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18; NKJV).  But why would God be angry with us?  He knows that we are only human, right?  God is a loving Father; surely He can overlook our weaknesses and failures.

What the verse goes on to say is that the wrath of God “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . .”  The Greek word translated “ungodliness” might better be rendered “impiety.”  It denotes the lack of reverence and devotion to God.  “Unrighteousness” is the lack of conformity to God’s law.  And that, according to Scripture, is why God is angry with us.

But why?  As long as we mind our own business and do not harm others, what is the problem?

As we have seen, God is our Creator and Lord, and He expects us to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him (Mic. 6:8).  What happens in actual practice, however, falls far short of the mark.  We routinely ignore God in our lives.  Yes, we may pay lip service to God, or to some duty, but our “religion” amounts to little more than a mere formality.  We rarely pray; we rarely read the Bible.  Our decisions are mainly based on calculated self-interest.  We assert our independence, and then look for ways to rationalize our behavior.  Scientists and philosophers try to devise elaborate alternative explanations of reality.  The rest of us just fill our lives with money, pleasure or entertainment.  And when circumstances overwhelm us we turn to the psychiatrist or the bottle.  We will try anything and everything except turn to God.  And inwardly we resent the thought of God having any kind of authority over us.  This is what the Bible means by “ungodliness” or “impiety.”  It is the near total absence of God in our thinking.  We call it “secularism.”

And then we are guilty of “unrighteousness.”  We pursue our own individual self-interest, and it often comes at the expense of others.  We try to convince ourselves that we are not really hurting anyone else, but our actions often belie our words.  As a society we will created governments and pass laws; but as individuals we will look for ways to game the system.  We lie and we cheat.  We gossip.  We lose our tempers and seek revenge.  We are motivated by greed and ignore the suffering of others.  We eat too much; we drink too much; we lust after women.  We hurt each other through a thousand tiny cuts.  We know that all of this is wrong, and yet we do it anyway.  This is what the Bible means by “unrighteousness.”

But, you may ask, what about the many people who have made personal sacrifices for their fellow man?  What about Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King?  What about those who have given their lives on the battlefield or those who have devoted their lives to the care of the sick and the poor?  Aren’t they good people?  Aren’t their deeds noble and virtuous?

Yes, indeed, there have been many people who have done great things.  But in the sight of God they are often doing the right things for the wrong reasons.  Most people are guided by a kind of social morality.  They have been raised and educated in a certain culture, and the society in which they live expects them to act a certain way.  There are rewards and punishments.   If you do the wrong thing you could go to jail; if you do the right thing you might achieve recognition from your fellow man.  But the morality of a society is often determined by the social, economic and political needs of that society, and as a result sometime comes into conflict with God’s moral law.  America’s economic system is based on individual self-interest and the profit motive.  The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Tim. 6:10).

Thus the behavior of individuals within a given society is motivated by a desire for social acceptance, and this often involves an element of hypocrisy.  We maintain a public persona that we project to others, but inwardly we can be quite different.  The true inner self can be stubborn, proud or resentful.

But all of this is quite different from what God requires.  What He wants is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves (Dt. 6:4; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:35-40).  We look at the outward appearance; God looks on the heart.  He discovers the hidden motive.  And “rational self-interest” is still self-interest.  Civilization is too often an attempt to better our lives without God.

In short, it is the underlying motive that counts.  What motivates us to do good things?  Is it a genuine love for God and for our fellow man?  Or is it a desire for esteem and success?  And what do we do when society’s standards conflict with God’s.

In other words, when God looks down from His throne in heaven, what He sees is not a bunch of basically good people trying their best to do the right thing.  What He sees is a human race that stubbornly refuses to recognize Him as Creator and Lord, routinely ignores Him in daily life, and breaks His commandments when it is convenient to do so.  He sees people who hurt each other in ways large and small.  And that is why God is justly angry with us.



Lorenzo di Credi: The Anunciation


“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”                          I Tim. 1:15; NKJV


In these twenty five words the apostle Paul summarizes the message of Christmas, and indeed of the Christian gospel itself.  Jesus is the Messiah (“Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah” – both words mean “the anointed one”).  He came into “the world,” this sin-cursed world of fallen human beings.  He had previously existed in heaven, and then came into the world by means of a virgin birth and assumed the form of a human being.  And why did He do this?  “To save sinners.”  And herein is the rub.

We would like to think of ourselves as basically good people and that God likes us just the way we are.  But when God looks at us He does not see basically good people.  What He sees are “sinners.”  We routinely ignore Him, and we often do that which we know to be wrong.  And why?  Because our actions are driven by various forms of selfishness: pride, greed or lust.  And as a result we are, by nature estranged and alienated from God.

But “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  So great was the love and compassion that He had for us that He came into the world and died on the cross to save us – to rescue us from our sin and depravity, and from the punishment we justly deserve.  Christ shows His love for us, not by pretending that we are not sinners, but by paying the penalty for the sins we have committed.

And is Paul being self-righteous, bigoted and judgmental by calling people “sinners”?  No, not all.  For he says that Christ came into the world to save sinners, “of whom I am chief.”  He sees himself as a sinner, just like everyone else.  We are all sinners; we all need salvation.  And Christ came into the world to achieve precisely that.

In calling sin “sin” we are not setting ourselves above others.  We are simply acknowledging the common fault of mankind.  And the way to find peace with God is not by pretending that we are righteous, but by frankly admitting that we are sinners and asking God for forgiveness.  That is not bigotry; that is humanitarianism at its deepest level.

And that is the true meaning of Christmas!




The whole point of Christmas is beautifully summed up in the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16; NKJV).  And it is the most famous verse in the Bible for good reason: it encapsulates in just a few words the central point of the Christian message.

The verse begins by saying “For God so loved the world . . .”   This is itself is a remarkable thing.  John almost always uses the word “world” in a negative sense: “For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world” (I John 2:16).  The world is a world of lost sinners who are in rebellion against God and have given themselves over to sinful desires and vices.  It is a world that is patently guilty in the sight of a perfectly just and holy God.

How, then, could God “love the world”?  Certainly not in the sense that He found the world adorable, for it most certainly was not.  Rather the word “love” is used in a different sense here.  It is the pity and compassion that God shows towards a suffering humanity.  It is a love which is directed towards the unlovable, and it is a love which is marked by self-sacrifice.  “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7,8).

But how did God demonstrate His love toward us?  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .”   As noted earlier, when Jesus is called God’s “only begotten Son,” that means that He is God’s Son in some special and unique way.  Jesus was God’s Son from all eternity, and shared the Father’s divine nature.  That means that when God “gave His only begotten Son” He was giving up the one Person who was nearest and dearest to Himself – His most precious and beloved relation.

And the text says that He “gave” His only begotten Son.  When one person “gives” something to someone else he surrenders control over it.  And how did God the Father “give” His Son?  By sending Him into the world to die on the cross.  By letting His Son assume the guilt of lost sinners and bear the penalty in Himself.  But letting Him die a slow agonizing death.  The sky was darkened and Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  It had to have been the most horrible moment of Jesus’ entire existence.  The Father punished the Son for our sins.

But why would God ever do such a thing?  What could possibly be gained by it?  Our text says, “that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  The recalls the language of Daniel 12:2, where speaking of the future resurrection of the dead it says

“And many of the those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,

Some to everlasting life,

Some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Jesus Himself had warned His disciples, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28; the word translated “destroy” is a different form of the same verb translated “perish” in John 3:16).  What is at stake here is nothing less than man’s eternal destiny.  We will spend eternity in either heaven or hell.  Salvation is what makes the difference, and that required an atonement for sin.  Only Christ could do that.

But there is a condition attached to the promise.  The promise of salvation is to “whoever believes in Him.”  The phrase in the Greek (ho pisteuon eis auton) suggests more than just believing something about Jesus.  It implies placing one’s trust in (eis) Jesus, relying on Him as our only hope of salvation.  It requires a personal and conscious act of commitment on our part.

The birth of Christ, then, was an unparalleled demonstration of divine love toward a sinful and rebellious human race.  And we miss its full significance unless we ourselves recognize our personal need.  We are fallen sinners; Christ came into the world to save us.  Let us go to Him in full repentance and faith to receive the forgiveness of our sins and new life from above!



Jan Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring


In John Chapter 4, verses 1-26, we have the account of a conversation that Jesus had with a woman of Samaria.  It is a fascinating exchange, and it gives us insight into the nature of true religion.

Jesus and His disciples were on their way back to Galilee following their trip to Jerusalem, and they took the direct route which led through Samaria.  The Samaritans, at least to the Jews’ way of thinking, practiced a debased form of Judaism, and hence weren’t really Jews.  And a Jewish man ordinarily would not be seen talking to a woman in public, least of all a Samaritan woman.  But here Jesus found Himself, weary from His journey, sitting on a well in Samaria, when lo, a Samaritan woman came by to draw water from the well.  Jesus, thirsty, asked her for some.  The woman was surprised that a Jewish rabbi would make such a request of her, and the remarkable conversation began.

Jesus replied to her surprise by saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (v. 10; NKJV).  The woman, of course, had been thinking in terms of normal social relations: Jews normally did not have anything to do with Samaritans.  What she did not realize at this point is that she was not dealing with an ordinary Jewish man.  She was, in fact, dealing with the Messiah Himself.  And what He had to offer her far surpassed what she had to offer Him.

But what did He have to offer?  He says that He could give her “living water.”  She, of course, had no idea of what He was talking about.  Just a minute earlier He had been asking her for water.  He obviously did not have any means of drawing any water Himself from the well.  And so Jesus goes on: whoever drinks from the water in the well will eventually get thirsty again.  “. . . but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.  But the water that shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (v. 14).  Here Jesus is evidently not talking about literal, physical water, but rather of something inside of a person that leads to everlasting life.  As John makes clear later in his gospel (John 7:39) Jesus was, in fact, speaking of the Holy Spirit, whom He compared on the later occasion with “rivers of living water” (7:38).  Jesus is using vivid imagery drawn from the real life experience of people who live in dry, arid climates: a river of water brings life to the soil it touches.  Without water the land becomes a barren desert.

There is an important spiritual truth here.  We are directly dependent upon God for whatever spiritual life we have.  In and of ourselves, in our natural condition, we are spiritually dead, devoid of spiritual life.  Our only source of spiritual life is God Himself: He must impart it to us, and this He does through the agency of the Holy Spirit.  In the process of conversion the Holy Spirit convicts us, enlightens us, and finally indwells us.  It is an inward spiritual renovation accomplished by the power of God, and it leaves us changed persons – alive to God and to spiritual reality.

But the conversation with the Samaritan woman does not end there.  The woman does not quite understand what Jesus is telling her – she still thinks that Jesus is talking about literal, physical water, and she asks for some of it, “that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (v. 15).  But then Jesus does something unexpected: He tells her to get her husband.  She says that she does not have one.  “Right you are,” Jesus says in effect.  “For you have had five husbands, and you’re not married to the man you’re living with now” (v. 18, paraphrased).  The poor woman was probably floored.  How could He have possibly known such a thing?  But, as it turns out, He was right, and she began to realize that there was something special about Jesus.  “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” (v. 19).

This led her to ask Him a question.  The Jews worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem; the Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerizim.  Who was right?

What Jesus tells her is nothing less than astonishing: “. . .the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father” (v. 21).  He goes on to explain: “But the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (v. 23)

Here Jesus is making an important statement about the nature of true worship.  True worship.  True worship is not tied to physical surroundings because it is essentially a spiritual activity.  “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him much worship in spirit and truth” (v. 24).  God Himself is Spirit – He is not a corporeal being, and hence is not tied to a physical space, and He does not have any physical needs. Therefore He can be worshiped anywhere and everywhere.

But if worship is not tied to a physical location, how do we worship?  How do you worship God when you are not in a “house of worship”?  The answer is, you worship Him in your spirit.  As human beings we are both flesh and spirit.  But the real “you,” your real personality, resides in your spirit, your non-corporeal self.  And that is the part that can have communion with God.  And so that is the part of you that God wants to have worship Him.

Unfortunately it is all too easy for us as human beings to go through the outward motions of worship and not worship God at all.  We can sit in the pew, sing the songs, put money in the offering plate, and listen to the sermon.  But if the heart is not engaged, if we do not feel a genuine love for God and joy in what He has done for us, our “worship” is all sham and pretense.  It is not worship at all.  It is sheer hypocrisy.  And God can see right through it; He is not impressed at all.

What is needed then, in the modern church, is genuine spiritual life and genuine worship.  For too long we have been content merely to “go through the motions.”  The real question is, what kind of spiritual life do we have when we are not sitting inside of a church building?  This is not to say that God wants us to forsake His public worship.  But true spiritual life does not cease the moment we exit the building.  If it is the real thing, it grows and thrives throughout the week.  It is evident to others.  It is “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”




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).



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