IT CAN’T BE THAT EASY

That was how the young couple I was training in FAITH Evangelism responded. They had accompanied me to make an evangelistic presentation to a family. The teenage daughter, after hearing the presentation, decided she wanted to repent of her sin and trust Christ. After a simple prayer, she became a follower of Christ.

When I asked for feedback about the training experience, the young man said becoming a follower of Christ couldn’t be that easy. We want to make it a difficult process. We add rituals, ceremonies and festivities to show we are sincere. A Syrian officer named Naaman contracted leprosy. A Jewish servant girl told him to go to Israel to see the prophet Elisha to get healed. Elisha sent a servant out to greet him and tell him to go dip seven times in the Jordan River and he would be healed. Naaman went away angry. However, his servant stopped him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13).

One criticism of “Sola Fide,” or faith alone, is that once people “pray the prayer,” they can live any way they want. “Once saved, always saved” or perseverance of the saints does not mean that at all. Once people believe in Christ, a change needs to occur as a demonstration of that faith. Both the Apostle Paul and Apostle James point to Abraham to prove their points. Paul says Abraham was justified by faith alone. James said that his deeds justified him. There is no conflict. It is not a case of faith or works, but a faith that works. Abraham was credited with righteousness twelve years before he was circumcised and four hundred years before any one of the laws was given to Moses. He could not have kept the Sabbath, Passover, or any feasts, yet he was considered righteous because he believed. So how did he demonstrate his faith? He packed up and moved to a land that God had not yet even revealed to him.

When God approached Noah to tell him that he was going to destroy all flesh, he told Noah to build an ark large enough to carry all the kinds of land-dwelling animals. God gave him the dimensions and told him how to prepare for the coming deluge. How did Noah demonstrate his faith? Genesis 6:22 says that “Noah did according to all that God commanded him.” He went from being a farmer to being a ship builder. As James stated, he showed his faith through his actions.

As Jesus approached the town of Jericho, he encountered a man named Zacchaeus up in a tree. Zacchaeus desired to see Jesus, but the crowd would not permit it. Jesus told him to come down and take him to his home. There Jesus participated in a hospitable meal. Zacchaeus said, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” Jesus responded, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.” What did Jesus mean by “a son of Abraham”? Wasn’t Zacchaeus already Jewish? Galatians 3:6-7 says, “just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Therefore, know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” True sons and daughters of Abraham are not those who keep Jewish rituals and festivities, but those who simply believe what God says.

Notice the changes in all three of these lives. Abraham left the place where he felt at home and moved to a place that God had not yet revealed to him. Noah’s belief in what God told him motivated him to begin building a ship. Zacchaeus’ faith motivated him to restore those whom he had defrauded and give generously to the poor. Their lives drastically changed.

Believers often use Ephesians 2:8-9 to justify spiritual inactivity: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Yet they forget to add verse 10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” We are not saved by works, but for works.

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THE SINNER’S PRAYER

The concept of the sinner’s prayer has come under much scrutiny recently. A co-worker one day asked me, “where do you find ‘the sinner’s prayer’ in the Bible?” He genuinely wanted to know. The sinner’s prayer is often found at the end of gospel presentations in tracts or books. While it may appear in various forms, it goes something like this: “Dear God, I know that I am a sinner. I believe that you love me, and that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I now repent of my sins and ask Jesus to come into my heart to forgive my sins. Thank you for saving me. In Jesus’s name, Amen.”

After that prayer, the text of the tract, or the person presenting it will say, “Congratulations. You have just been born again. Welcome to the God’s family. Now that you have prayed that prayer, never let anyone or anything cause you to doubt your salvation.”

Is that person truly saved? Many evangelicals would say yes. After you have “prayed the prayer,” you are saved no matter what. “Anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved,” (Romans 10:13). Only time can answer that question. In reality, many who have “prayed the prayer” often return to life as usual. Young people, once they move away from home, may go off the deep end morally. Yet when someone asks them if they are saved, they often reply, “Yes, I ‘prayed the prayer.’”

That view makes “the prayer” little more than a magical charm, an amulet that is supposed to protect you from evil spirits. Once you pray the prayer, you can live like the devil thanks to the “assurance” you received about never doubting your salvation. This has led some denominations to separate over the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. Some churches call it “perseverance of the saints.” Several denominations believe that you can lose your salvation if you don’t “toe the party line.” In other words, you backslide into the world. You may have a habit that a particular denomination does not accept. I have heard of certain groups that do not allow you to play dominoes because they are the “devil’s bones.” If you continue to play dominoes after “praying the prayer,” you are in danger of falling from grace.

Where does the Bible contain the “sinner’s prayer”? It does actually exist, however in a different form from the one above.

In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus told the story of two men who went to the Temple to pray: one a Pharisee who religiously kept the law. In fact, he reminded God of that during his prayer. In essence he said, “I keep the law. I do not extort money. I don’t commit adultery. I fast in accordance with the law, and I tithe. I am not like that tax collector over there.”

In the other corner of the Temple, the unrighteous tax collector could not even lift his eyes toward heaven. He made no pretense of being able to keep the law. He knew how far short he fell. All he could do was beat his breast in contrition and say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said that man went home justified rather than the one who tried to keep the law. The law-keeper impressed no one, least of all God.

Notice the simplicity of the tax collector’s prayer? No flowery prose, no King James English unless you are reading the KJV. No theological explanation. He just knew that he needed God’s mercy.

God’s salvation does not come to those who pridefully think they are made right with him by keeping his law. Only Jesus could do that. The law was never designed to save, only to show us our need for mercy and drive us to Christ. One man exalted himself and went away unjustified although in his own mind he kept the law. The other humbled himself, threw himself on God’s mercy and went home justified.

The problem with “praying the prayer” is that you may deceive yourself into believing you are saved, when you are not. You have never repented of your sin, and you are trying to justify yourself in God’s sight by your good deeds. Ephesians 2:8-10 says that we are saved by grace through faith that is a gift, not of works so that boasting is excluded. We are not saved by works, but for works. Have you “prayed the prayer” or did you get saved?

SORROW WITHOUT REPENTANCE?

 

Sometimes the world shouts at God, “Leave us alone!” yet down deep they experience a sense of guilt and shame they cannot assuage. Thinking about God may make people feel worse since they already know what they are doing is wrong. They may even feel a kind of sorrow about their behavior, but it does not bring about any lasting changes in behavior.

The apostle Paul called this “the sorrow of the world” (2 Corinthians 7:10). This sorrow may bring a sense of regret. It may make people feel sorrow because they got caught doing something wrong, but rather than bringing about repentance, such sorrow leads only to death. It may even cause them to redouble their efforts not to do it again, but they continue to fall into that action because they are relying on their own strength. “I can be good without God,” they reason.

On the other hand, Paul also spoke about the “godly sorrow” that “worketh repentance to salvation.” So, there are two types of sorrow, but each one brings different results. One person could feel sorrow over an act, and that sorrow causes the person truly to repent. Another person senses sorrow over an act, but for some reason does not repent. The outcome is different in each case. One truly repents and finds salvation. The other feels sorrow, but does not repent.

As we prepare for the Easter season, let’s see how this worked out in the Bible. On the night before Jesus was crucified, Judas led a mob to capture Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. With a kiss, he betrayed Christ to the authorities who ultimately had Christ crucified. That same night when Christ had been taken into custody, Peter followed as far as he could, even into the court area to warm himself near a fire built by the enemies of Christ. Three times people accused him of being a follower of Christ. Three times he denied it. Then the rooster crowed, and he realized that he had done exactly as Christ said he would do.

Now let’s look at the actions of these two men. Both of them sinned against Christ. Both of them sensed regret. Matthew 27:4 records Judas as saying, “I have sinned…for I have betrayed innocent blood.” Notice the guilt he felt. He even confessed his sin and admitted that he betrayed Christ. His reaction was that “he went away and hanged himself” (27:5) instead of seeking Christ’s pardon. Paul calls that “the sorrow of the world” that “worketh death” (2 Cor.7:10). Judas’ sorrow did not lead him to true repentance, salvation, and life, but rather to his end.

On the other hand, when the rooster crowed, Peter remembered Christ’s words regarding his betrayal, and he went out and wept bitterly (Matthew 26:75). He realized what he had done. He experienced the godly sorrow that Paul wrote about. That sorrow led Peter to genuine repentance, and he found salvation. That sorrow “work[ed]repentance to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10). We can only speculate what must have gone through Peter’s mind between the time of the crucifixion and the resurrection. In John’s gospel, however, we find Peter being restored to fellowship with Christ. John 21:15-19 shows Christ tenderly bringing Peter back into the fold and commissioning him to tend Christ’s flock.

Several weeks after that restoration, Peter preached the first sermon of the Church at Pentecost, and three thousand came into the church that one day. Christ accomplished a great feat through Peter’s sorrow and repentance, but when people think of Judas, they only feel disgust. No one names their son Judas, but many have named their sons Peter.

When Paul gave his defense before King Agrippa, he told the king how he preached to the Gentiles that they should repent and do works which give evidence of repentance (Acts 26:20). Repentance should bring about change of actions. When you feel sorrow for your sin, which way will you run, to Christ, or away from Him?

 

Leave Us Alone!

 

One Sabbath day while Christ was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, a man possessed by an unclean spirit began to cry out loudly, “Leave us alone! What do we have to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Luke 4:34). Although this man found himself among the religious at a synagogue service, he himself was still unclean. He was morally corrupt and ceremonially unclean. The authority of Jesus’ teaching elicited a response from the unclean spirit. The spirit cried out for Jesus to go away. Instead of leaving, Jesus rebuked it and told it to leave the man. It obeyed instantly.

The demon recognized Jesus as “the Holy One of God.” It recognized Jesus’ authority to destroy it. The demon also recognized the authority of Christ to cast it out, and it had to leave on Christ’s command.

“Leave us alone!” is the cry of the world today in response to preaching the gospel. It is the cry of morally corrupt people when they sense presence of Christ and it makes them feel uncomfortable. “Don’t tell me how to live. Don’t tell me whom to love!” Rather than changing their corrupt behavior, they scream for Christ to go away. They do not recognize his authority to demand repentance. They do not recognize his authority to obey him. They simply want Christ to leave them alone.

As Noah was constructing the ark in his day, he preached to the people to repent. That preaching lasted one hundred and twenty years. No one repented, and the flood came and took them away (Matthew 24:38-40). In the end, no one was saved except Noah and his family (2 Peter 2:4-6). In the end times, great disasters will come upon the earth, but people will not repent (Revelation 16:9, 11). They will curse God instead. They will say, “Leave us alone!”

In John 3:19-20, Jesus said, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” People react to Christ in one of two ways. Sensing his presence may bring a sense of conviction that causes them to repent and turn to Christ in faith. Others feel conviction, but rather than repenting, they scream out for Christ to go away. They hate his light because they love their own darkness.

They may not be literally shouting at Christ, but they often shout at his followers. They want nothing to do with Christ. They would prefer to wallow in sin rather than repent. So, they want the church to go away. They want Christians to stop preaching the gospel because it induces guilt. They want to silence the church. In effect, they are saying, “Leave us alone!”

They want the church to remain silent, not to speak on political or moral issues. They like the church as long as it feeds the poor, shelters the homeless, or cares for children. They believe in Christ as long as he promises to give them health or wealth, but they want to be left alone when it comes to moral and ethical demands on personal behavior.

The time will come when they will get their way. People who cry out, “Leave us alone” will one day be left alone. Hebrews 9:27 states, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” All those people who wanted God to leave them alone will find themselves left alone for eternity. Rather than being in God’s presence with their loved ones, they will find themselves separated from God, friends and family for eternity. They will be utterly alone.

How will you respond to Christ? Will you say, “Leave me alone!” or “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”? Will you come into the light? The choice is up to you.

 

 

Years in the Making

 

Bad habits can develop slowly over long periods of time. Small effects accumulate, and a picture that we do not like begins to develop. Suddenly we decide we need to do something about it, and we want immediate results.

One example is weight gain. Here we are one month into the new year and some people have already given up on their resolution to lose weight and get in shape. Perhaps years of bad eating habits, eating junk food, or simply overeating even good food, has led to being overweight. After several years in the making, suddenly we want an instant fix. We go on starvation diets trying to lose weight quickly.

While success may come quickly, it seldom lasts. After a period of strict dieting, we often bounce back into the old habits that led to the weight gain in the first place. A permanent habit change must take place if we are to lose the weight and keep it off. Being overweight is a health issue we need to deal with realistically.

Smoking is another health issue. Whatever reason a person gives for smoking is not valid. There is simply no good, logical reason to smoke cigars, pipes or cigarettes. Now before you come down harshly on me and say that I should be more empathetic because I do not know what smoking is like, I must confess that I did try smoking for a while in the summer of 1972 right before I began high school. I wanted to be cool and accepted, so I listened to my friends’ advice. I tried cigarettes and even those little cigars, but all I got out of it was sick. I could not breathe well, and it affected my ability to swim (I wanted to be like Mark Spitz). So, I quit. I did not care what my friends thought of me. I thought they were foolish for smoking.

After years of smoking, people develop various forms of breathing ailments or even cancer. Suddenly they want prayer for a miracle to overcome lung cancer. They want an instant solution to their problem that has been years in the making. It is not that easy.

As a pastor, I have often dealt with people who bring personal problems to me to solve for them. About twenty years ago, I spent several hours talking to a man who came to me with a marital problem. If I remember correctly, they were not actually married. The main issue was that he had been living with a woman without the formality of marriage. They had a child together out of wedlock. At the time he was talking to me, the girl was about twelve years old. His common-law wife had left him to move in with a deputy sheriff and took the little girl with her. This man came to me wanting me to tell him how to solve his problem so he could get his daughter back.

I asked him if he was a Christian. He said yes. “So, you realize,” I asked him, “that your actions were sinful?” “Yes,” he replied, “But…” He continued to explain to me how the situation had developed, how his wife had left him for another man, and he wanted me to help him find the daughter and get her back.

“You have spent at least thirteen years creating this mess,” I said, “and now after one meeting with me, you want me to tell you how to solve it?” Problems that are years in the making often cannot be solved overnight. The way to solve these problems is to prevent them in the first place. Had this person followed biblical principles, those problems would not have arisen. He would not have been sitting there with me, his life in a shambles, seeking answers as to how to fix it.

Sadly, I never saw that man again. I never did find out how the issue was resolved, if ever. Life holds enough heartache for us even when we live by God’s principles. How much worse things go when we deliberately forsake God’s ways, develop problems, then go seek a pastor or a counselor to tell us how to get a quick fix.

In the devotional magazine, Open Windows, Tan Flippin wrote, “When you choose to travel down the pathway of wisdom instead of taking other routes, life just seems to go more smoothly and you save yourself a lot of headaches and heartaches…we can base our decisions on greed, selfishness, and without forethought and prayer” (LifeWay, 01/20/17). Choose wisely the way in which you will walk, because small decisions made today can affect the very outcome of your life tomorrow. Those problems may be years in the making.

 

 

Living the Christian Life

 

One of the misconceptions about eternal life and going to heaven is the belief that somehow, when a person is judged, their good deeds will outweigh their bad deeds. Many believe that one day God will open the books and look at all the things we have done. He will place all the bad deeds on one side of a balance and all our good deeds on the other side. If the good outweighs the bad, we feel as though we deserve to go to heaven.

When I have talked to people about their need to repent of their sins and place their faith in Christ, I often get the response, “I will just try to live the Christian life to make up for it.”

Dennis Rader was an active member and the president of the church council in a local church of his city, and was a Boy Scout Troop leader upon his arrest in February, 2005. Church members were shocked to discover that this man they had known for years was also known as the BTK killer. Between 1974 and 1991, Rader bound, tortured, and killed ten victims, some multiple members of a family. No one knows why he ended his murderous spree in 1991.

In the years following his crimes, he became an active church member and leader. He began to live the Christian life. For fourteen years, he became a Christian example. Surely during those fourteen years after the murders, he did many good deeds.

On June 27, 2005, he pled guilty to all the charges. During the trial he gave many horrifying details about the crimes he had committed. Today he is serving 10 life sentences in a Kansas prison. What if the judge treated his case the way many people feel that God, the most Righteous Judge, will treat their cases? What if Rader had told the judge, “Your Honor, I know that the jury has found me guilty of torturing and killing all those innocent people, but look at all the years I didn’t kill. Look at all the good work I did as a Scout leader. Look at the way I have lived a committed Christian life and served at church”? Then, what if the judge said, “You’re right. I can see how you performed more good deeds than the ten murders you committed, so I am going to pardon you”? We would think that is a miscarriage of justice. We would be outraged.

You may be thinking to yourself, “I am not that bad. I have never murdered anyone.” Haven’t you? First John 3:15 says, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” Have you ever hated a brother or a sister? Then you have committed murder. What about adultery? Have you ever lusted for someone? Then you have committed adultery. The truth is that we have committed more sins than we probably even realize.

So why didn’t the judge let the BTK killer go after living the Christian life for fourteen years after the murders? Think of all the boys’ lives he had affected as a Scout leader. Think of all the people whom he didn’t murder by serving as president of the church council. Living the Christian life does not atone for the sins already committed. No matter how you live after sin, it does not make up for the sin you committed.

If a police officer catches you running a stop sign and you ask, “What if I promise never to do it again? What if I stop ten more times to make up for the time I didn’t stop?” Will that get you out of the ticket? No, you have broken the law and you must pay the penalty. When it comes to sin, we have all broken the law, and not just one or two of them. James 2:10 says, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” We are guilty of breaking all of God’s laws, even murder. God is just and must punish sin. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin. God doesn’t simply forgive our sins because he loves us. That would be unjust. Someone has to pay for our sin. Either we pay the penalty ourselves, for the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), or we accept Christ’s atoning death in our place. There is no other way to satisfy both the love and righteousness of God. Your living the Christian life won’t do it.

First, repent of your sin. The only hope is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Romans 13:14). After you have done that, you begin to live the Christian life because you are Christian. Living the Christian life will never save you. You can only live the Christian life once you are saved.