A Prayer for Salvation

What does it look like to pray that God save you? There is, of course, no “sinner’s prayer” as a prayer of salvation in Scripture. There is no prayer like the prayer at the end of the gospel tracts. That is, of course, good, as the point of coming to God in faith is not empty repetition of magic words to get yourself into heaven.

With that said, it is also nice to have something of an example of what it looks like when a sinner in need cries out to the Lord.

Let me preface. This Psalm is not a prayer for spiritual salvation. It is, in fact, a prayer for a physical salvation. But, if you study the Scriptures well, you will find that the physical salvation of Israel from Egypt or David from enemies is a picture for us of the coming and eternal spiritual salvation we find in Christ. There is a parallel that we can see. And with that in mind, I want us to see how David opens this prayer.

Psalm 143:1-2

1 Hear my prayer, O LORD;
give ear to my pleas for mercy!
In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!
2 Enter not into judgment with your servant,
for no one living is righteous before you.

David cries out to God. Please hear me. Please have mercy. Be righteous as you always are. Please do not enter into judgment over me. I, like all people, cannot stand up to your perfection. Lord, have mercy.

That is a beautiful prayer. When a person comes to God admitting right away that we have no ground upon which to stand, that is good. When we realize that we can only fall upon the mercy of God, that is right. And, thanks be to God, the Lord is both perfectly righteous and wonderfully merciful.

Is the gospel here? Of course it is. God is just and merciful. The justice of God is perfectly satisfied as Jesus, God in flesh, took upon himself the right wrath of God for my sin. The mercy of God is perfectly evident in God rescuing me, a sinner, from the wrath I deserve.

And, let us not leave this prayer without a moment to focus on the state of all people. David says, “for no one living is righteous before you.” No living human being can be righteous on his or her own. If you are outside of Christ and think you are OK with God, you are thinking unbiblically. We are not righteous before the holy one. We are less than his perfection. We need to be forgiven. WE need to be saved.

Let David’s prayer be yours even today. If you are a Christian, let this prayer remind you of your state before salvation and your continuing need for God’s grace. If you are not a believer, know that you need the righteousness of God and his mercy to forgive you, as none of us can stand under the judgment of God and live.

God is not an Option

In the realm of bad evangelistic presentations, there are many things that I have heard said that are troubling. Perhaps the worst in this batch would be a person encouraging others just to try giving their lives to Jesus. The evangelist, with a genuine heart, called on people to just give Jesus a try and see if he did not give them life and peace and the rest. Just pray this prayer, believe, and you’ll get better.

Friends, this is not the way to share a genuine gospel. In fact, it is dangerous for the person to whom you speak. See this warning God gave in Ezekiel.

Ezekiel 14:1-5 – 1 Then certain of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. 2 And the word of the Lord came to me: 3 “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? 4 Therefore speak to them and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, 5 that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.

In the days of Ezekiel, the people of the land were miserable. The Babylonians had come in and taken over. The people wanted to be returned to Judah from their foreign captivity. And they were willing to try anything to get home.

In this passage, God is responding to something that was apparently going on. IT seems that some of these people, the leaders of the captives, were approaching Ezekiel to ask him to inquire of God on their behalf. IN general that sounds good. But there is a problem.

The Lord tells us that the people coming to Ezekiel have taken their idols into their hearts. You see, these people coming to Ezekiel were dedicated to idol worship. IN earlier chapters, we saw that these folks were bowing to idols, fashioning pictures of animals on the temple walls for worship, and were even bowing to the sun. They were not turning to the Lord as the one true God. They were simply giving a nod to the Lord to try him out to see if he might help them out of their calamity.

God is clear in that passage that he will not be one among many. God will not be an experiment for a wayward, idol-worshiping people. HE will especially not be merely an option for a people who had agreed to a covenant under which they would obey his law and he would be their God. These people were brazenly violating the terms of their agreement with God, and then turning to God to see if he might work as a solution to their political problem. And the Lord is having none of it.

While you and I are not Old Testament Israel, there is still a lesson for us to learn. God will not be one option among many for people. God will not be an experiment for you. God will not give a sweet answer to a person who turns in his direction all the while having a heart full of idols. The gospel does not promise eternal life and hope to people who are willing to mouth a prayer or get wet in a pool but who are not really willing to surrender to the lordship of Christ.

Salvation is a free gift of God. We receive it by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We do not do any sort of works or ceremonies to gain salvation. But, true salvation includes our repentance. And repentance includes our turning from all our idols and our full-scale surrender to Jesus Christ as our ultimate and eternal King. Those who turn to Jesus have been born again. Those who are born again have changed hearts. Those who have changed hearts follow Jesus and reject idols. But no person is saved who is merely turning to Jesus as one option among many to try.

Christians and Commands

How do followers of Jesus interact with commands from God? This ought to be simple, but I think it becomes complicated by folks from time to time. So, let’s take a brief look at a couple principles that relate to believers and our responsibility toward the commands of God.

Romans 3:20 – For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

2 John 6 – And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.

3 John 11 – Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.

First, obedience to commandments does not save us. God’s word is clear that none of us can be saved by following any sort of law of God, as Paul tells us in Romans 3:20. This is because the perfect righteousness of God displayed in the law exposes our sin and need for a Savior from outside of ourselves. We have already sinned against God and earned his judgment. We are already guilty from the fall of man. We cannot make up for that with good behavior, even perfect behavior, from now on. No person will be saved by works. Thus, there is no Christian call to obey commands to be saved.

Second, as we see in 2 John 6, to love God is to walk in accord with his commandments. While obedience is not a part of our salvation, obedience to the commands of God is the clear fruit of loving God. Not to obey the word of God is not to love God. The one who loves obeys. Our obedience to the commands of God is not a fulfilling of legal requirements, as those requirements have already been fulfilled in Christ. But our obedience is the way that those who are changed by God display that change.

Third, disobedience is a sign of being lost. As we see in 3 John 11, “whoever does evil has not seen God.” This verse is not saying that a single mistake or fall means a person is lost. But a person who does evil, who lives in it, who refuses to obey the righteous commands of God, that person displays by his actions that he is not part of the family of God. Note that this is not a call to obedience to fulfill legal obligation that impacts one’s status before God. Instead, it is clear that a heart that is set on what opposes God and that does not desire to obey the commands of God for the love of God is a heart not changed by God.

We could draw a neat little circle with these three points. Obedience to the commands of God does not save you. Obedience to the commands of God is required to love God. Lack of love for God, which is displayed in a lack of obedience to God’s commands, shows that you are not saved. Thus, obedience is not required to earn salvation, but obedience is a necessary result of salvation.

With all that said, how do you feel about the commands of God? Do you delight to obey? When God tells you to meet regularly with the local church for worship, teaching, fellowship and the rest, do you love that command and obey it for God’s glory? When you hear God’s command not to lie, not to gossip, not to seek personal revenge, do you delight in obedience out of love? When you hear God’s command to love others as you love self, do you delight in his word? When you hear God forbid sexual immorality in all its forms, do you delight in purity as God defines purity for his honor? When you hear how God wants the family and the church to be structured, do you delight in doing what the culture opposes because you desire to honor the Lord who saved your soul? Do you delight in obedience to the commands of God, not to earn points, but as a display of love?

Let’s Talk Judgment

One of the worst human follies is to allow yourself to believe that present actions have no future or eternal ramifications. To live so much in the here and now as to pretend that there is no future, no tomorrow, no forever is a deadly thing. And this is an error that has gripped people through the generations.

In Isaiah’s day, he promised the judgment of God on a rebellious people.

Isaiah 26:20—21 – 20 Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by. 21 For behold, the LORD is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain.

In these verses, God calls on his people to hide while his judgment falls on the land around them. It is a simple picture of God protecting and preserving his own while he allows his justice to rain down on those around them. This happened in Egypt, when God preserved the Hebrews in Goshen but let judgment fall on the Egyptians.

What got my attention when I read this was the wording of the end of verse 21, “and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain.” Part of the judgment of God on the people of the land is that he will not allow the earth to hide the sin of the people. The earth itself will disclose the blood shed on it.

Friends, we are total fools if we assume that we can sin in secret and not have the Lord know. We are fools if we believe that the Lord will allow any sin to go unpunished. And we are fools if we believe that a nation will stand under the favor of God when it is full of innocent blood shed by evil men.

Just imagine if, in our own nation, the land was to reveal all the innocent blood shed by people who assumed they were getting away with something. The blood of all the brutalized slaves would be seen. All the blood of innocent babies slain in the womb would cry out against us. The blood of the lives of those who have been consumed by our entertainment industries would stand out against us. The blood of trafficked women and children would serve as testimony against us.

Our nation has a history of many great things, but we would be fools to pretend that our nation does not also have a great deal for which to answer to the Lord. And we are fools if we believe that the Lord will not call the nation to account. The land will show what we have been. The Lord is just and must rightly punish sin, all sin, every sin.

Christians, take note. Our only way of escaping the judgment of God is found in faith in Christ and repentance from sin. All who are in Christ have our sin punished, not in ourselves, but in the Savior who died as a sacrificial substitute. Jesus, while hanging on the cross, took the wrath of God upon himself for every sin the forgiven ever commit. Our hope has never been in the idea that God will allow sin to go unchecked. Our hope is in the fact that the justice of God for our sin has already been done.

But for all not in Christ, the judgment of God is quite real and quite personal. You see, for all who refuse God’s grace in Jesus, there is only one alternative. All who refuse the grace of God and the Lordship of Christ will stand before the bar of God’s justice and receive for themselves the due penalty for sinning against the Holy God who made us. That judgment is infinite in scope, as to sin against the infinitely holy God is an infinite crime. And this is not limited only to individuals. Every nation that opposes the Lord and his ways will face the right judgment of the Almighty.

Our only hope as a nation is to receive the grace of God. As individuals, we are guilty. As a nation, we are guilty. The solution to our problem begins with the spread of the gospel. As individual after individual begins to receive the grace of God in Christ, as family after family comes under the influence of Scripture, then and only then might our nation turn from its rebellion against the Lord before it is too late.

Friends, may we as individuals and we as a nation turn to the Lord to seek his mercy. God is just. Jesus is our only hope. To ignore the coming justice of God is folly.

Blessed or Cursed

When God sets before you and me a pair of options, be blessed or be cursed, it really should not be hard for us to decide which we want. This is quite often the way that God speaks in Scripture, especially in poetic passages like psalms and Proverbs. God lets us know with simple clarity that one choice will lead to our life while another will lead to our death.

We see one such choice spelled out in Jeremiah 17.

Jeremiah 17:5-8

5 Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8 He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

Look at the poetic opposites, the antithetic parallelism. We see a description of the difference between a man who is blessed and one who is cursed. The cursed man is compared to a dying shrub while the blessed man is like a flourishing tree. One lives well. The other meets destruction.

What is the difference in being blessed or cursed? This is a big deal, as knowing this is as important a bit of data as a person can grasp.

  • ““Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD” (verse 5).
  • “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD” (Verse 7).

Look clearly. Trust in man, and you are cursed. Trust in God, and you are blessed. Trust in your own strength, and you will meet destruction. Trust in the Lord, and you will find life.

All in all, this is the message of the Bible. We are weak. We are sinners. We are incapable of making it to heaven on our own. We are incapable of earning the favor of God through any of our actions. And when we trust in ourselves, our strength, our goodness, our power, our wisdom, we die.

God certainly owes us no explanation for why this is the case. God has every right to choose to save us or destroy us based on his own standards and his own reasoning. But this one is not hard to guess as to why God does things the way that he does. To trust in yourself, to try to do things your way, is for you to make yourself your own master and your own savior. To trust in self is to reject the authority of God over you. To trust in self is to say to your Creator that he must take a back seat to your own wisdom and your own will. This will lead you to death. It is not at all hard to see why trusting in self and walking in our own ways leads to destruction.

What is actually harder to understand is why the Lord would be so gracious to us as to allow us to trust in him for life. God has every right to simply destroy all the universe. God has every right to wipe out humanity and start over. After all, he is Creator. His creation is stained with rebellion from Adam on. But God has always intended to display his glory, not in simply making a perfect creation, but in rescuing from a fallen world a people for his glory. The honor of God is magnified in his choice to have mercy on a people, a people he draws to himself and grants forgiveness when they trust in him and not in self.

In Jeremiah, we see this principle spelled out for national Judah. If the people in the land trust in and follow God, they will be blessed. If they do not, they will be overrun by the Babylonians. But in our lives, the principle is more personal and more eternal. Trust in yourself, live only for yourself, and you will face the right wrath of God. But turn from sin and trust in the Lord by surrendering to Jesus in faith, and you will find eternal life and forever goodness.

An Odd Sermon Illustration and the Purpose of Our Lives

I don’t think I’ve ever used a pair of underwear to make a sermon point—nor do I intend to do so in the future. But in Jeremiah 13, the Lord asks the prophet to make a point to Judah with a loin cloth. The illustration is simple. He takes a new loin cloth, clean and whole, and buries it in the ground. Then, after several days, he digs it up again, and it is now ruined. And God says this is a picture of what has happened to Judah.

Jeremiah 13:8-11 – 8 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 9 “Thus says the Lord: Even so will I spoil the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. 10 This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. 11 For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.

Much of the book of Jeremiah is like this passage. Judah has turned from the Lord. Because they have turned, they are in deep trouble.

Before we start thinking that God is being harsh here, remember a few things. First, we have no right to ever judge the actions of God. Second, the people of Judah agreed to follow God according to his standards and accepting God’s promised consequences for disobedience. Third, God had given them warning after warning for centuries. Fourth, the people were not only refusing to follow the law in general, but they were actually rebelling against their ultimate purpose.

What was Juda’s purpose? God says he made Judah his people for this reason, “that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory.” God rescued Judah as a people, drawing them out of Egypt and entering into covenant relationship with them, so that these people would shine forth a light on the glory of God for the world to see. Their purpose for existence as a nation was to show the greatness of God. And they, as a nation, were not only failing to show the glory of God in general, but were particularly rebelling against their purpose, behaving in dishonorable ways, and still wanting the protection and provision of the Lord. And it was for this reason that God was going to bring in enemy nations to destroy Jerusalem and ultimately take Judah captive for 7 decades.

God wanted his people to know that Judah would go into exile, and it would be because the people of Judah would not obey the Lord and live to his glory. But what shall we learn from this? Like the people of Judah, all human beings have been created by God, in the image of God, for the glory of God. There is no person on earth whose reason for existence is not the glory of God. And all people everywhere have a choice to either glorify God in their submission to the Lord or glorify God as God judges them for their sin. We all deserve the latter. It is the grace of God that offers us the former, the opportunity to glorify God by coming to him for grace and then living in obedience to his word for his glory.

Get personal here. You are made by God. God, as your Creator, has the right to tell you why you exist. You exist to display God’s glory. You, in fact, will display God’s glory for eternity. And you have a responsibility. All humans have failed to live up to our responsibility. Thus, we all deserve for God to eternally judge us and display his glory by enacting his just retribution on us for fighting against him. But God calls us to turn from fighting him, to trust in Jesus and Jesus’ finished work on the cross, and to be saved by his grace through faith in Christ alone. If you will repent and believe, God will save you, change you, and empower you to find great joy in honoring him with your life. Then you can obey the commands of God and find that your whole purpose for being is to magnify the perfection of God.

Which would you prefer to be? Would you prefer to display the glory of God by being an object lesson of his justice? Or would you prefer to be a trophy of his grace and kindness? Jeremiah used a rotten loin cloth to illustrate the destruction we all deserve for not being what God created us to be. But in Christ, God can make us new and useful to him for his glory and our joy. Will you trust Jesus? Will you then give your life for its real purpose, the honor, the glory, the name of God?

Empty Religious Claims and Base in Tag

Do children still play tag? I wonder sometimes with all the safety rules that are applied these days if that game is allowed any longer. When I was little, tag was one of the first games of choice on the playground. And sometimes you would play with a particular spot, maybe a tree or pole, as base. If you were touching base, you were always safe. You could never be tagged and made to be “it.”

I am thinking of tag and of the base in particular because of something I read in the book of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 7:3-4 – 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

In Jeremiah 7, the Lord has a message for the people of Judah. He is beginning to warn the nation that they are in great danger of facing his judgment. The people of Judah have begun to assume that they are always safe from the wrath of God because the temple of God is standing in Jerusalem. They just know that, no matter how badly they behave, no matter how much they do what God commands they never do, God would never let his temple fall.

In the text above, God asks them why they think they can violate his commands, turning against the covenant they agreed to, and be safe just by pointing to the building on the hill in Jerusalem and shouting the phrase, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” It was as if the people of Jerusalem were using the temple as base in tag. They thought they could sin all they wanted against the Lord but touch the temple and be safe no matter what.

In the following verses in this chapter, God points out that the people of Jerusalem are not safe. The temple is not base. They have no hope except for repentance. And if they will not repent, the temple itself will fall just as did the northern kingdom of Israel before Jeremiah’s day.

Jeremiah 7:8-11 – 8 Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.

From verses 5-7, God told Judah that their hope was in repentance and faithfulness. But here we see that there is no safety for the people in continuing in sin, running to the temple, and thinking they will be safe.

Honestly, we have little trouble looking at this passage and feeling it is obvious. Of course no temple would protect the people from the judgment of God if they are living in open rebellion against him. No building will cover over idolatry, theft, murder, adultery, and all the rest. WE know, or at least we should know, that the people need to be under the grace of God, turning from sin, obeying his law, seeking his mercy.

But before we let ourselves really roll our eyes at the people of Judah from the seventh or sixth century BC, let’s ask ourselves an important question. Do we have a false notion of a religious lucky charm that makes us safe and allows us to continually live in sin? I think a lot of people do, people who use the label Christian for themselves.

As one example, there are many people who have an unbiblical view of the grace of God and the way we receive it. Some believe that grace can be gained through interaction with blessed objects. For example, if a person believes that they receive an extra dose of grace by receiving the bread and wine of holy communion, they are thinking of grace in a way that is foreign to the New Testament. Communion is a beautiful ceremony and is vital to healthy Christian life. But communion does not grant to the Christian extra forgiveness atop the forgiveness that God gives to believers at their conversion. Nor does a Christian find any extra grace from God in drinking water from a particular stream, in bowing at a particular site, or in venerating a particular relic. Simply put, the Bible does not teach us that grace is transferred to us through holy objects or sacred ceremonies.

The danger, of course, is that a person who allows herself to believe that grace is found in ceremony, physical objects, or the blessing of a priest is in danger of believing that personal faith, personal conversion, and personal striving toward sanctification are less important. She may indeed live in opposition to the word of God, and then declare herself safe before the Lord with similar words to the people of Judah, “I went to mass; I went to mass; I went to mass,” or the Protestant alternative, “I went to church, to church, to church.” The bread and wine, the words of another’s blessing, or even a beautiful building full of religious things will not grant us favor.

But the danger of thinking of religious ceremony as a safe base allowing us to continue in sin is not unique to a Roman Catholic mindset (or that of other groups that find great value in objects and ceremonies). I have met many a person who believes himself to be secure in Christ, not because of biblical evidence of conversion, but because of a prayer prayed decades earlier. A person responded to an evangelist at an emotional church meeting and convinced himself that, no matter what, his prayer and an emotional moment give him license to live however he pleases. But the New Testament is as unfamiliar with that kind of claim as it is of the idea that the grace of God is transferred to us because of what building we are in. God never suggested to us that there is such a thing as salvation in Christ apart from the lordship of Christ. God never has told a person that they can lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, pervert justice, hate others, forsake worship, ignore the church but then trot out the saying, “I prayed the prayer; I prayed the prayer; I prayed the prayer.”

Salvation is a free gift of God. The forgiven are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We are saved when God makes our hearts alive, we see our sinfulness before him, we understand Christ and his work, and we cry out to Jesus for mercy. But in that crying out to Jesus is a commitment to follow Jesus as our Lord. In that crying out to Jesus is a change in our very life purpose. In that crying out is our full surrender of self to the word and ways of the Lord.

Nobody has ever been saved by doing good deeds or practicing religious rituals. Nobody has ever received grace by touching a sacred object or having a special person pronounce blessing over him. And nobody has ever been saved by muttering an emotional prayer that does not lead to life-change. Yes, we are saved when we truly trust in Jesus. But when we truly trust in Jesus, change begins. And no person should ever assume that he or she has salvation without a commitment to submit to the word of God. Don’t get me wrong, struggling and failing from time to time is sadly part of living in this still-fallen world. And I surely would say to you that I have a great many failures in my past since my time of conversion. But, a claim of salvation without a desire to follow the Savior is like thinking that we can run to empty words or empty actions and claim them as base so God cannot tag us. Or, you might say that claiming salvation which does not result in following Jesus as Lord is like the cry of the Judeans, “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”