Friday, February 21, 2014

I Like Big Buts and I Cannot Lie – or – Why Me, God?

 One of my favorite Biblical passages is Ephesians 2:1-10. Let’s first look at the first five verses:

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!”

To quote (differently) an old-school rapper, “I like big buts (B-U-T-S) and I cannot lie,” but don’t trip, I’m speaking grammatically. I’ve considered making a parody of the song, but I don’t think it would go over too well. The “But,” that starts verse four is HUGE. Before it comes around, I was dead in sin, under Satan’s dominion, enslaved to sin, and under God’s wrath. BUT God made me alive by grace alone! HALLELUJAH! What a Savior!
Sometimes I wonder where I would be right now if it wasn’t for the grace of God in my heart. Considering that I had declared myself an atheist four-and-a-half months before I was saved, it’s a scary question to contemplate. God would have been perfectly just to allow me to continue in that blatant rebellion and end up cursing me to hell. It’s proof that God’s ways are higher than my ways (Isaiah 55:9); His plans are higher than my plans; His grace is amazing—I can’t get past it / I don’t know how without Him I ever lasted. It’s proof that just because someone turns their back on the faith he or she isn’t necessarily lost for good. God will save whoever He wants. It’s a comforting thought.
However, it leads to another uncomfortable thought. Why me? What was there about me that made God want me? I’m the one who’d called Him every curse word you can imagine; I’m the one who told Him to go to Hell; I’m the one who cursed Him to His face. He still chose to show me grace. Nothing about me merited salvation.
All I’d done that “deserved” salvation, was pray the sinner’s prayer every year since I was seven; by eighteen I gave up because it never changed anything. It never healed my left hand; it never helped my relationship with my parents; it never helped me make friends. Christianity was a joke to me. And then I came across one of the great apostasy passages in the Bible: John 15:6.
Jesus said, “If anyone does not remain in Me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” I instantly recognized this as myself, especially considering the fact that I grew up in the church. I knew I wasn’t truly in Him. It was then that God snatched me out of death and gave me spiritual life. I was dead in sins like a dead branch, but God grafted me into Christ. In that moment I didn’t ask Christ to come into my life. I told Him I’m sorry for my lust, pride, and hatred, and I was ready for Him to use my story to bring Him glory. I wanted out of the spotlight; I just wanted to point to Him.
The passage continues with verses 6-10:

“Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.”

I’ll keep this portion brief. It initially ties back into the statement I made prior about not praying the sinner’s prayer before being actually saved. Verse six explains that God raised me up and seated me in the heavens with Christ. I did nothing to get there myself. Dead people don’t bring themselves back to life. In the same way, in John 3 with the new birth, no one chooses to be born; the second birth is the same way. The first is of the flesh from my mother; the second is of the spirit from my Savior.
Verses 8-9 is also very clear to state that salvation is not of works. If it was, then I could be proud and I could boast. However, it wasn’t. God elected me before the foundation of the world to be saved (Ephesians 1:3-14), and He breathed spiritual life into me when I was dead in sin. I chose to believe (Ephesians 1:13), but it was only after God changed my heart. Illustration: Offer an African lion a raw steak or a salad and it will naturally choose the raw steak every time unless its nature is changed. In the same way, when offered God or sin, a person will naturally choose sin unless God has changed his or her nature. I can’t boast in my salvation, because it’s all of God.
Verse ten talks about good works that God planned for me. This is the craziest part of my salvation. Not only did God rescue me from death, but He wants to use me as well. Second Corinthians 5:20 says, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” This is my new job as a believer in Christ, and it’s a good work. I don’t know who is elect, so I’m called to preach to as many people as possible and call them to trust Christ with their lives. God has many people in this world (Acts 18:9-10), many of whom still need to hear the good news.
What’s your “big but” story? How will God use you to bring more people to trust Christ? Go out and proclaim the message, knowing that God is faithful to use your proclamation to bring His people to Him.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Paradise or Pair-of-dice?

At my old job, there’s a story that is passed from staff to students about an Indian chief who died. This chief was very kind and generous all the time. When he died, “The Great Spirit” came to him with a choice about where to spend eternity. She showed him both locations: one had angry, selfish people; the other had happy, generous people. The people were stiff and upright—locked knees and elbows—at both places. Both locations had huge feasts “miraculously” prepared for the people to partake of.  The Indian chief is first shown the “bad” place, where the selfish people try to feed themselves, but can’t eat anything because they are so stiff; then he is shown the “good” one, where the people feed each other. He chooses the “bad” location. Once he chooses it, he becomes stiff and upright, and he goes to meet with the people there. When he gets to the feast, he feeds the person next to him, and thus changes the bad place into another good place.
This got me thinking about the concepts of Heaven and Hell. Are they identical, except one is full of selfish people, while the other is full of selfless people? The Bible certainly doesn't think so. Revelation 21:5-8 says,
“Then the One seated on the throne said, ‘Look! I am making everything new.’ He also said, ‘Write, because these words are faithful and true.’ And He said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give water as a gift to the thirsty from the spring of life. The victor will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son. But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars—their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death’” (HCSB, emphasis added).
The word, “but,” between the emphasized portions explain that there is a distinction in the passage. Some, called “victors,” will live forever with God; others, described by their deeds, will go to a place of torment.
This is much different from the parable shared at my old job. In it, the two places are identical; the people are what change them. One is upset and selfish; the other is joyful and selfless. Heaven and Hell are not like this. Heaven is a place of rest; Hell is a place of torment. Just because Gandhi is in Hell doesn't mean that he can make it any better for anyone. When Paul wrote in Romans 9:3, that, “For I could almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my own flesh and blood,” he is not saying that he would go to Hell to make it better for those there. He is saying that Hell is so horrible that he would sacrifice his spot if only his fellow Jewish brothers could be saved. Hell is not the same as Heaven, minus the people who are there.
Heaven truly is paradise. However, many people, even some Christians, see Heaven and Hell as just a pair of dice. They would say that they are the same, and it’s impossible to separate them, except that Hell is where those go who don’t want God to be in their life. Hell then becomes a place where God is absent. However, the Bible says the opposite. Psalm 139:8 speaks of God’s omnipresence: “If I go up to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.” God is in both. In Heaven He is comforting the saints; in Hell He is tormenting the damned.
You may say that that is a strong statement. However, it is not. We have all offended an eternal God. Therefore, the consequence as well should be eternal. If you killed one person, but then spent the next ten years as a doctor—saving hundreds of people—when you were finally arrested, you would be judged for the murder; the judge would be evil to let you get away based on the good things—saving—that you had done. If God didn't cast us into Hell for our sins, He would be unjust and evil. God forbid! Thankfully, He sent Christ to the earth, to live a perfect life, and die for our sins, so that our accounts could be switched when we put our complete and total faith in Him.
Rather than thinking that Heaven and Hell are only different because some people want to be with God and others do not, we must grasp the fact that Heaven is an amazing and perfect paradise, Hell is a place of torment; they are not pairs of dice, decided by chance by varying peoples’ attitudes.