We dishonor God by persisting in sin because we assume his grace will cover it
A highschool friend heard about the doctrine of eternal security—which some people shorten to the more accessible mantra of “once saved, always saved”—and latched onto it. She reasoned this creed allowed her to act any way she wanted, that she and God were in a good place in their relationship, and her behavior didn’t matter anymore.
In short she took this as a license to sin.
She thought she had her get-into-heaven card, and that was all she cared about. She disconnected her reality on earth from her future in eternity.
Though she rightly embraced God’s grace, she incorrectly assumed it came with endless abundance. This didn’t feel right to me. Surely she overreached and grabbed onto an unwise conclusion. I tried to talk her down from her extreme position, but she wouldn’t listen.
Instead she clung to her steadfast belief that nothing she did from that point forward would have any bearing on her spiritual future. After all, she had said the prayer, so she was in. I wish I had read Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. I wish I had known about the sixth chapter.
In it Paul addresses this topic of sin and grace. The deeper the sin, the greater God’s grace. This is true. Yet some go too far and claim our ongoing sin serves to elevate God’s grace.
Paul says, “No way!”
When we follow Jesus we turn our back on our wrong behaviors (Romans 6:1-2).
I wish I had known that to tell my friend.
Jesus uses narrative to inform us about his father’s kingdom
Jesus uses parables—“an earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” as I learned in Sunday school—to teach us about the kingdom of God. We are part of the kingdom of God, and we need to do a better job of acting like it. Since Jesus talks much about the kingdom of God and next to nothing about church, perhaps we need to more seriously consider the kingdom of God as the basis for our behaviors, attitudes, and priorities.
Some of Jesus’s parables appear in two or three of the biographies of Jesus, and others, in just one. Interestingly, John does not include any parables in his biography of Jesus. Here are the parables the Bible records for us, along with a brief summary for each one:
The Two Debtors: The person forgiven of the greater debt is more appreciative (Luke 7:41–43).
The Pharisee and the Publican: One man exalts himself before others, while another humbles himself before God (Luke 18:9–14).
The Evil Judge: A judge eventually gives a poor woman justice to stop her from bugging him (Luke 18:1–8).
The Master and Servant: Servants work and do their jobs without receiving thanks or honor (Luke 17:7–10).
The Unjust Steward: A man about to lose his job abuses his authority to gain favor from others (Luke 16:1–13).
The Rich Man and Lazarus: The poor Lazarus dies and goes to heaven; a rich man dies and goes to hell (Luke 16:19–31).
The Lost Coin: A woman loses one coin and diligently searches until she finds it (Luke 15:8–9).
The Prodigal Son / the Lost Son: One son is dutiful; the other son leaves home, wastes his money, and returns home in defeat, but receives a party from his dad (Luke 15:11–32).
The Wedding Feast: People assume a place of honor at a party and are embarrassed; others don’t and are elevated (Luke 14:7–14).
Counting the Cost: Don’t build a building if you’re not sure you can pay for it; don’t go to war unless you think you can win (Luke 14:28–33).
The Barren Fig Tree: A fig tree that produces no fruit receives a second chance, but not endless chances (Luke 13:6–9).
The Rich Fool: A rich man built bigger barns to store his wealth so he could take it easy, but he died the next day (Luke 12:16–21).
The Friend at Night: A man pounds on his neighbor’s door for help in the middle of the night (Luke 11:5–8).
The Good Samaritan: A man goes to great risk to help another in need (Luke 10:25–37).
The Tares: Weeds grow in the field and will be separated from the grain and then burned after the harvest (Matthew 13:24–30).
The Pearl: A man sells everything to buy a pearl of great value (Matthew 13:45–46).
Drawing in the Net: All fish are caught in a fishnet. The good ones are kept and the bad ones discarded (Matthew 13:47–50).
The Hidden Treasure: A man discovers buried treasure and then buys the property so he can have it (Matthew 13:44).
The Unforgiving Servant: A man is punished after he is forgiven of a large debt but then refuses to forgive a small debt owed to him (Matthew 18:23–35).
The Workers in the Vineyard: All men receive a full day’s wage regardless of how many hours they work (Matthew 20:1–16).
The Two Sons: One son tells his father he won’t work and then does; the other son promises to work and then doesn’t (Matthew 21:28–32).
The Ten Virgins: Ten girls anticipate a party. Some are prepared to wait and they get in; the ones who aren’t prepared miss out. (Matthew 25:1–13).
The Sheep and the Goats: A shepherd separates his sheep from his goats (Matthew 25:31–46).
The Growing Seed: A man plants seeds, but he can’t control what happens to them (Mark 4:26–29).
A synopsis of each parable is given, but their meanings are for you to consider. May each one guide us into living the life Jesus wishes us to live.
Paul’s letter to the Romans opens with three traits for us to ponder
Paul begins his letter to the church in Rome by giving them an overview of his situation. He shares three characteristics about himself, his mission, and his calling. Though he does this to establish credibility for his message, and thereby encourage the recipients to take his words seriously, the attributes seem like a mini-biography, one with spiritual importance.
In Paul’s self-assessment, he says he is:
A Servant of Jesus: I like to call myself a follower of Jesus—as opposed to the more general description of Christian, which means different things to different people. Being a follower of Jesus shows commitment, yet it still implies I have some say in the matter, that I made a choice.
Being a servant, however, carries with it a deeper commitment. I need to move my mindset from being a follower to becoming a servant. Maybe you do, too.
Called to be an Apostle: Instead of focusing on the meaning of the word apostle, which could suggest a missionary, a church leader, or a passionate adherent (all of which describe Paul), let’s instead focus on the word called. What does it mean to be called by God?
While we may not have a calling at the same high level as Paul, all Christians are called, first to follow Jesus (as in “Come and follow me,” Matthew 4:19) and then to obey him (John 8:51). As we serve him he will tell us to do other things, too. These are our callings, even if we’re not traveling around the world as his missionary.
Set Apart for the Gospel: While being set apart could be a Spirit-led summoning of the highest order (Acts 13:2), it could also be a simple command to set ourselves apart from the world, to not be conformed to it (Romans 12:2). Everyone who follows Jesus should be set apart in this way, while being open for him to also set us apart for something greater.
If we are a true Christian (as opposed to being one in name only), we will do well to adopt the attitude of Paul: that through Jesus we are his servant, called, and set apart.
Religious persecution is real for many people, but some people needlessly bring opposition upon themselves
In many parts of the world religious oppression is an everyday reality that affects adherents’ ability to move about freely, earn an income, and purchase life’s necessities. A deep religious hatred limits the daily freedom for some people of faith. Their unwavering devotion to what they believe only earns them more revulsion. In some cases this animosity results in physical harm, sometimes fatal.
While horrific, I don’t have the perspective to write about this kind of severe religious persecution with the insight it deserves. Instead I’ll address a lessor form of suffering, the suffering we bring on ourselves: self-inflicted persecution.
I once had an employee who had recently converted to Judaism. She didn’t know much about her faith practices, at least not that she could explain to me, but I did admire her unwavering commitment to follow what she had been taught. (Once, at a company luncheon, she declined a cheeseburger but couldn’t tell her perplexed coworkers why she was prohibited to eat it. I later explained to them the Levitical law behind the practice.)
A few months into her employment I noticed a disturbing trend. She would sometimes leave me a voicemail message—always after 5 p.m.—informing me that she wouldn’t be working the next day because it was a religious holiday for her. And she had lots of them that fall.
From a planning standpoint this frustrated me. Often I had specific things I needed her to do that next day, but she was giving me little time to make adjustments. I explained that I was happy (okay, willing) to accommodate her religious observances, but I needed advanced warning. A list of holidays would be helpful.
She said that wouldn’t be possible because sometimes she didn’t know until the day before. Really? When I pressed her on this, she was steadfast that she couldn’t give me a calendar of her religious holidays. I suggested she ask her Rabbi for a list. She didn’t too much like that.
A week or two later she shoved a sealed envelope into my hands. The stationary bore the name of a Rabbi. Glad to be making progress, I opened the envelope in excitement, but the Rabbi hadn’t given me a list of dates as I requested.
Instead, he had drafted a tersely worded missive to inform me what I already knew, that I needed to provide her time off to observe Jewish holidays. And that a failure to do so discriminated her for her religious preference. He implied I was persecuting her for her faith.
No, I just wanted a list of holidays so that I could provide time off in the best way possible.
I don’t know what she told her Rabbi, but I doubt she asked for a calendar of Jewish holidays so that I could plan better. I doubt she told him I was making the accommodations she sought and merely needed some basic information to do so better.
Based on the tone of his letter, I suspect she presented me as someone who discriminated her for her faith, perhaps even anti-Semitic. (I have great affinity for religious Jews, as their faith history is my faith history.)
I considered contacting her Rabbi directly to explain—since she didn’t understand when I tried, once again, to clarify—but with the press of other work I never got around to it. A month later she quit, likely believing that I had persecuted her for her faith.
In truth she brought the situation on herself.
She told me that her new employer would provide her the time off that she sought, something I had done every time she asked, even though she failed to provide a simple list of holidays.
While we can experience varying degrees of negative reactions to our faith practices, we need to be careful that we aren’t the reason for the animosity. Maybe it’s not our beliefs that cause the problem but the unwarranted way we conduct ourselves.
Gamaliel offers wise advice for whenever religious factions stand in opposition
Paul’s in jail, imprisoned for doing what God told him to do. This isn’t Paul’s first incarceration for his faith in Jesus, and it won’t be his last. When his trial finally begins, his detractors levy four charges against him, which they use to justify their actions.
They say, “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him, (Acts 24:5-7).
Let’s break this down:
- A Troublemaker: This depends on perspective. To Paul, he’s simply involved in a new movement of God and is excited to share the news with his people. To his accusers, Paul’s messing with their traditions and upsetting the status quo. To them, he spells trouble.
- Stirs Up Riots: Though riots do seem to occur where Paul goes, he doesn’t incite them. The people who take offense at what Paul says stir themselves up. The riots are their fault, not Paul’s.
- A Ringleader of the Nazarene Sect: They accuse Paul of heading up a subset of Judaism (a sect), which could simply imply that Paul is a leader among those who follow Jesus, the Nazarene. If so, Paul would likely say “guilty as charged,” but the reality is that Paul’s detractors actually oppose Jesus. It’s just that Paul’s a present target. Jesus isn’t.
- Tried to Desecrate the Temple: Regarding the event in question, Paul was doing everything by the book, literally. But people jumped to a wrong conclusion and made false accusations.
Paul’s detractors accuse him using twisted facts, half-truths, and lies. People fear what they don’t understand, often going to extreme means to oppose it. So it is when God does a new thing inside his church.
God’s followers too often find themselves in opposition to each other. Instead of fighting one another, they should heed the advice of Gamaliel: “If it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:39). And no one who loves God wants to end up fighting against him.
Many streams of Christianity include the books of the apocrypha as part of their canon of scripture
The book of Revelation ends with a severe threat to anyone who would add to it, that God will afflict that person with the plagues mentioned therein. Though the warning clearly applies to the book of Revelation—“the words of the prophecy of this scroll”—some people, even preachers who should know better, wrongly apply this omen to the words of the entire Bible instead of just Revelation.
Adding to their error, they proceed to criticize the Roman Catholic Church (as well as other streams of Christianity) for “adding to the Bible.” Shame on these preachers; they don’t know their history. It was Protestants who removed content from the Bible, but this didn’t happen five hundred years ago during the beginning of the Protestant Reformation but more recently: about two centuries ago. Until then the books of the apocrypha were part of the King James Version, the venerable KJV.
Yes, you may be shocked to know the original King James Version of the Bible (1611) included the apocrypha. About two hundred years later the books of the apocrypha were removed from the KJV. (This officially started in 1796 but took until the mid-1800s to effectively occur). This news stunned me and angered me that people had removed part of the Bible, lessening my ability to more fully comprehend God in the process.
Fundamentalists call the four hundred year gap in their Bible, between the Old and New Testaments, “the silent years” because they believe God had nothing to say or do. In reality, the apocrypha clearly shows God at work during this time, but these fundamentalists don’t know this truth because they’re unwilling to consider what God had to say.
I’ve read and appreciate the seven books, along with additional text for two others, that Catholics have in their Bible and Protestants don’t. I wish I had encountered these amazing words much sooner.
I recently received a copy of the text removed from the KJV Bible (Apocrypha, King James Version). I expected it to include seven books. Instead there were fourteen. Now I’m twice as mad about what was taken away from today’s Protestant Bible and its sixty-six books.
But that’s not all. The canon of the Ethiopia Bible (The Apocrypha: Including Books from the Ethiopic Bible) contains even more. This Bible has eighty-one books in all, fifteen more than the Protestant’s sixty-six. I’m currently reading these books of the greater Bible. This will help me better understand God, just as other parts of the greater church of Jesus are able to do.
(There are also other historical writings, contemporary to the contents of the Bible, but since no stream of Christianity has included them in their canon of scripture, I am content to follow their lead. Though I’m a bit curious about what these nonbiblical texts have to say, I’ll ignore them and hide only God’s word in my heart, Psalm 119:11.)
The Bible provides the foundation of my faith. As a Christian, part of the universal church of Jesus, I contend we should consider all of the words any part of Christianity includes in their canon of scripture. As I do this, I don’t expect my core theology to change, but I do expect it to expand into a more holistic comprehension of God.
Don’t dismiss the words of the apocrypha. If you’re a serious student of the Bible, then you need to consider the whole Bible.
How closely do you do the things God tells you to do?
Paul travels to Ephesus to tell people about Jesus. As a Jew it seems logical that he would go to his own people first to share this good news. He does. He goes to the local synagogue, where he spends three months boldly telling them about Jesus.
However, some of the Jews don’t like what they hear, so Paul leaves the synagogue, but he doesn’t leave Ephesus. Instead he goes to the local lecture hall, presumably a Greek hangout. There he speaks daily about Jesus. It apparently goes well, because he sticks around for two years. In the end, everyone in the area—both Jews and Greeks—hear about Jesus (Acts 19:8-10).
I’m glad Paul goes to his own people first. And I’m glad he has a backup plan when his first one doesn’t work out. He seems to do this often when he enters a new city. He starts in the Synagogue, with his own people, and then expands his target audience when some of them oppose him.
Yet, why does he do this?
Paul’s assignment is the Gentiles, not the Jews. Ananias knows this at Paul’s (Saul’s) conversion (Acts 9:15), and Paul confirms this when he shares his conversion experience while on trial (Acts 22:21).
Yet to the Romans, Paul shares his deep love for his people. He writes that he is willing to be damned forever if his people could be saved (Romans 9:3-4).
Does this mean that Paul puts his own personal agenda before God’s command? While it might seem so, consider Peter when he quotes Psalm 118:22 to say that (most of) the Jews reject Jesus and then he becomes the cornerstone, presumably for everyone (Acts 4:11).
Perhaps Paul goes to the Jews first in each city to give them a chance. And when they reject his teaching about Jesus, he can freely go to the Gentiles, with scripture to back him up.
What may at first seem like disobedience may actually be a sound strategy.
The Bible records Jesus’s parables to explain the kingdom of God
Jesus talks a lot about the kingdom of God and hardly ever mentions church. This suggests church may be our idea and not his. Perhaps Jesus just wants us to be part of the kingdom of God and church doesn’t matter so much. Seriously.
In reading what Jesus says about the subject, twelve truths about the kingdom of God emerge. We can use these to guide our perspective in what it means to follow Jesus. If we would truly do this, it could change everything about how today’s church functions.
The Kingdom of God: We learn about the kingdom of God from Jesus’s parables. Many times Jesus says “the kingdom of God is like . . . ” and then he launches into a parable. (Matthew often writes “kingdom of heaven,” but he means the same thing as kingdom of God.)
Does this mean all of Jesus’s parables teach us about the kingdom of God? I think so. If the parables can instruct us about the kingdom of God, then they too can inform us of what it means to follow Jesus and how we should think, talk, and act.
Why Parables? Jesus’s disciples ask him why he uses parables when he talks to the people. Though today we see Jesus’s parables as a great teaching tool, Jesus says he uses parables to keep the masses from understanding, that only his followers truly know what the parables mean. And he cites the prophet Isaiah to prove his point (Matthew 13:10-17, Isaiah 6:9-10).
This suggests Jesus intends his followers to understand and apply his parables. To insiders the parables are a guide; to outsiders the parables are a mystery, albeit an intriguing one. Jesus says, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables” (Luke 8:10, Mark 4:11-12). While the Bible doesn’t tell us Jesus’s explanation of every parable, as his followers we should be able to readily comprehend his intention.
The Bible records thirty-seven of Jesus’s parables for us to consider. (Some people come up with different numbers, as low as thirty-three and as high as forty-six.) Luke records the most parables, followed closely by Matthew. Mark, the shortest of Jesus’s four biographies, provides far fewer, while John gives none.
John Shifts His Focus: Interestingly, John also talks much less about the kingdom of God compared to the other three gospels, mentioning it only twice. John wrote his gospel last, much later than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Could John’s failure to mention any parables and his scant mention of the kingdom of God, signal a change in perspective? Perhaps this suggests that by the time John wrote his gospel account, Jesus’s followers had already moved away from his kingdom of God teaching and the parables that support it.
Regardless, we can honor Jesus by returning our attention to what he says about the kingdom of God. His parables are a great place to start.
Paul and Barnabas respond to hostile nonbelievers with boldness and perseverance
In the Old Testament, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, are a set apart nation. They are to keep separate from the other nations around them and if they will, God promises to bless them. They also look forward to a promised king who will change everything.
Jesus—a Jew, by the way—comes as foretold. Most of those who accept him, assume he is there only for the Jewish people, that he is their savior and only theirs, that they must continue to keep the Gentiles at a safe distance and isolate themselves from unholy contamination.
A careful reading of the Old Testament, as well as Jesus’s words, however, gives us an expanded view: that Jesus comes for everyone, both Jew and Gentile.
With this in mind, let’s look at Paul and Barnabas when they arrive at Iconium. As is their practice, they head to the synagogue, the place where Jews hang out. Clearly their initial focus is the Jewish people. Their message connects with many of the Jews, as well as many Greeks (Gentiles). The Bible says, “that a great number believe.” So far, so good.
But some Jews don’t believe. Perhaps they don’t like change. (Sound familiar?) Maybe they see Paul and Barnabas (who are also Jews) as a challenge to their longstanding traditions. Or it could be they don’t appreciate that Paul and Barnabas are letting the Greeks in on the good news of Jesus.
Whatever the reason, they don’t disagree quietly. They stir up trouble. How this must vex Paul and Barnabas. They come there to tell their fellow Jews some good news, but some of them object and respond by forming an opposition movement.
How do Paul and Barnabas react? They get out of town as soon as possible, right? No! In the face of opposition, perhaps because of opposition, they stick around, for a good long while, speaking boldly the whole time.
As we follow Jesus, we should expect conflict and not be surprised if it comes from within our own tribe instead of from the outside. And when that resistance shows up we can opt to follow Paul and Barnabas’s example by doubling down and increasing our boldness.
Worship means different things to different people, but what’s important is that we do it
Some churches call their Sunday meeting a worship service. This has always troubled me. Yes, I knew that singing to God was a form of worship, or at least it should be. And I understood the part about “worshiping God with our tithes and offerings,” even though I didn’t see God getting too much of what we dropped into the offering plate. But the sermon?
How could listening to a lecture, often a boring one, be a form of worshiping God? In truth, aside from a few songs and the collection, the bulk of most church services are either education or entertainment. Is that worship? I don’t think so. I hope not.
Here are three ways we can worship God. (And like a good three-point sermon, they all begin with the same letter.)
Singing: As I said, singing to God is a way to worship him. More broadly, music is a path to worship. That means we can sing or listen to music. Music can also involve movement, rather it be clapping our hands, raising our arms in praise, or dance (from rhythmic swaying to getting down like David, 2 Samuel 6:14).
Yes, singing can have a physical component. It can also involve senses. Sight: seeing others sing and dance (or watching a light show). Hearing: listening to those around us sing and hearing the instruments. Smell: incense or a smoke machine. Touch: holding hands with fellow worshipers as we sing. Taste: singing while we take communion. (For the record, I’ve experienced each of these sensory elements in worship at various church services, though not often.)
Unfortunately, I’m musically and rhythmically challenged, so I struggle to worship God through music and movement. But give me a strong beat with catchy lyrics behind it, and I can engage in song as a means of worship.
Serving: Helping others, both with our time and through our money, is a tangible form of worship. I enjoy the action of doing something for others, offering it as an act of service to them and as a form of worship to God.
Similarly I like being able to give money to causes I’m passionate about or to people in need as the Holy Spirit directs me. Both are ways to serve and both offer a path for worship. I relish the opportunity to worship God through these forms of service.
Silence: In our multitasking, always-on society, the hush of stillness is an anachronism to most, one that causes many people to squirm. Few people can tolerate silence for more than a few seconds.
Yet in our silence—along with its partner, solitude—we can quiet our racing minds and still our thumping hearts in order to connect with God. Psalm 46:10 says to “be still and know that I am God.” Yet, setting time aside to be still presents challenges. For most of us, meeting with God in silence doesn’t just happen; we must be intentional.
In my times of silence I connect more fully with God in worship, get deeper glimpses into his heart, and am best able to hear his gentle words of encouragement, correction, and mostly love. So good!
Just as I make it my practice to attend church, I have a parallel practice of giving to my community each week. I also (usually) block out one day out of seven to fast, and part of that time includes worshiping God through silence. All three are forms of worship, though for me, helping others is more practical and resting in God’s presence is more meaningful.
God has uniquely made us and gives us different ways to worship him. When it comes to worship, one size does not fit all. Find the one that fits you.
[This is from the February issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.” Receive the complete newsletter each month.]