No Negotiation with God

In so much of our lives, we are called to negotiate our position. We tell people what we will give in order to receive something. We are careful to define what we will do and what we expect. After all, to not do so is to put yourself at risk in a fallen world.

But when it comes to salvation, we need to remember that negotiation has nothing to do with the process, and this is very good news. Coming to Jesus is total surrender to God and his authority.

I thought of this principle while reading through the parable of the lost son (some call him the prodigal son). The story is that of a man’s son who leaves home, blows his inheritance on evil living, and finds himself broke and alone. The son realizes that his dad treats his hired hands better than the son is living at present, so he determines to go home to his dad and negotiate a settlement, asking the dad to just give him a job on the farm.

Luke 15:17-19 – 17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

What is interesting here is what happens next. The young man goes home, ready with his speech. He is rightly humbled and repentant. He knows himself to be unworthy and is asking for grace alone. He is willing to be a mere servant in his father’s household.

But when the young man gets home, his dad runs to meet him. The young man starts to give his speech. But his dad cuts him off before he can finish. Once the young man returns in repentance seeking mercy, the dad will not at all allow him to negotiate his position. Instead, the father restores his son to the family. He throws a party. He tells everyone that his lost son has now come home.

Jesus intends this as a parable of the gospel. We do not, when we come to God, have any right to negotiate our position. We do not tell God we will give this if he will allow that. Instead, we come like the son. WE come repentant. We come knowing that we are guilty and unworthy. We come ready to fully submit to whatever our Father demands.

But the Father, for his part, welcomes us. God treats us, not as slaves but as sons and daughters. God will not make divisions in his family for the worthy, the less worthy, and the barely included. Instead, God forgives repentant sinners in Christ and elevates us all to the level of his very own children.

We want to remember two things here. First, we want to remember that we cannot negotiate with God regarding what we will hold back from him. If we come to him, we come to him completely, yielding our entire lives to him. But we also do not negotiate our position in the family. God adopts into his family all who trust in Jesus and turn from sin to surrender in faith.

Worthy or Not Worthy

When you think of yourself, what do you assume you deserve? What do you believe you have earned? How do you think God, if measuring your life, ought to consider you?

One of the strange errors that human beings make is that of assuming that we can measure our goodness or badness against that of other people. Sometimes we think we can measure our goodness or badness against our own former goodness or badness.

What is interesting is the fact that, the more godly a person you meet, the less likely she is to think herself to be good or worthy. Or read the old Puritans. There you will find men with godly habits that would shame our modern generation, yet who also considered themselves the most lowly of men.

In Luke 7, we read the story of a centurion who had a sick servant. A group of the Jews came to Jesus to ask him to help by healing the sick man. The question of worthiness is prominent in the discussion.

Luke 7:4-7 – 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.

Notice that the Jews were quick to say that this man was worthy, deserving of a miracle. But the man himself, he quickly and clearly declared himself unworthy, not only of the miracle, but of the Savior’s attention at all. What gives?

As we get to know the Lord more and more, as we know his word and ways, we begin to understand that we are in no way worthy of any favor from God. You see, God’s standard for measuring goodness is himself and his perfections. No mere man, stained by sin from birth, is able to come close to matching God’s perfection. WE all know that nobody is perfect. We all know that we slip up and fail from time-to-time. And even the slightest single slip is enough to score us as infinitely below the standard of perfection that God would call worthy.

Yet there is something right about the contrary statements from the Jews and the centurion. The Jews thought the man worthy. They looked at his life, and they saw genuine evidence of a man who feared God. They saw change and right living. They saw a man whose life is marked by goodness. But the man himself knew is own flaws, failings, and shortcomings.

In truth, that conflicting pattern ought to mark our own measure of worth. If you are one who has come to Jesus in faith and repentance, if you have been forgiven by God’s grace through faith in Christ, your measure of yourself as compared to the way others measure you should mirror what we see here. Others should look at your life, see your obedience and the transformation that comes because of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, and they should consider you to be a good and worthy person. But you should know, deep down, that the only good in you is that which has been given to you by Christ.

By the way, how did Jesus feel about this man’s declaration of himself as unworthy but willing to ask Jesus for help?

Luke 7:9 – When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

Faith in Jesus is the key to our being accepted by God. It is a faith that God grants to us as a gift. It is a faith apart from works through which God grants us salvation and the righteous record of Jesus. And that faith helps us to see ourselves as unworthy yet willing to rely fully on the person and work of Jesus for our standing before the Lord.

So, are you worthy? By any human measure, if you know yourself, the answer is no. None of us is worthy of anything other than the judgment and wrath of God. But if you have come to Jesus in faith, God has granted you forgiveness for your failings and the righteous record of Jesus for your record. Thus, in Christ, the Father calls you worthy even as you have never done anything to be worthy a day in your life. With that forgiveness comes new life and transformation. That leads us to live differently than ever before. And that difference should make others around you see you as worthy even if you know that all your goodness is a gift from God and God alone.

Naaman and a Picture of the Gospel

There are pictures of the gospel to be found all through Scripture. God wants his people to see that his ways and his truth have never changed. So, even in times when the plan of God to save a people by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was still only hinted at in shadow, God turned certain events to help us see how he would work.

Consider the story of Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5. Naaman had a dreadful disease from which he needed healing. He went to Israel looking for a cure from the Lord. When he approached Elisha the prophet, Elisha gave him simple instructions. The foreign general was to wash in the Jordan 7 times, and he would be restored.

Watch how Naaman responded to Elisha, and you will see something of the problem many have with the gospel.

2 Kings 5:9-14 – 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

Naaman was offended. He was offended that Elisha did not treat him with extra respect because of his rank. He was offended that Elisha did not come out and perform some sort of religious ceremony. There was no sacrifice. There was no dancing or anointing. It was just a command to go and wash in the river. When Naaman finally relented enough to do what he was told, however, he was healed.

In our world, people struggle with the gospel for a variety of reasons. Of course, in our day, many are so in love with their sin that they want nothing to do with the gospel. They want nothing to do with the God who would limit their evil. But there are those who struggle with the gospel because it seems too simple. They believe that more must be required of a person to be truly made right with the Creator. They assume that religious rights and rituals, sacrifices and bowings, ceremonies and mystical chants must be required for something as significant as the salvation of a soul.

Here is the amazingly good news. God saves sinners by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. A person does not have to pass through some sort of ritualistic testing ground to be saved. We do not have to climb the highest mountain or sleep for 40 days in the cold. No, in order to be saved, a person merely turns from his own sinful desire to control his life, trusts in Jesus, and is saved. When a believing sinner turns to Jesus for life, that sinner finds that God has already done all the work to save him. God has provided the righteousness that we could never live. God has provided the sacrificial substitute in Jesus. God has even given us the faith to believe. All the work to save us, absolutely all of it, was done by the Lord. And so we simply let go of trying to make ourselves right with God and surrender to Jesus in faith. Then, like Naaman simply slipping into the Jordan River, we find that we are made whole by the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

Simplicity in the Gospel

Matthew 11:25-26 – 25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

Just after telling people that they are in deep trouble with God for not responding to the revelation of God they have been given, Jesus speaks aloud a prayer to his Father, a prayer of gratitude. He is thankful for the fact that God, the Lord over all, has done two things.

First, God has hidden the truth of the gospel from the smartest of the smart. Second, God has made the gospel available to people with childlike minds. And the Savior tells us that this glorifies God.

Jesus thanks the Father that he has hidden the truths of the gospel from the wise and understanding. Something about the ones that the world thinks are the best and brightest goes against the gospel message. The Christian faith is not for the super-smart, self-sufficient scholarly types. For God’s own reasons, those who are most praised for their brains in this world are the least likely to be the ones who come to faith.

1 Corinthians 1:18-21 – 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

Similarly, we know that the most successful, the rich and the famous, have always been among the slowest to believe.

Matthew 19:23-26 – 23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Why is all this so? Is it because there is something inherently wrong with Christianity so that it only draws the uneducated, the foolish, the outcast? No, the faith is not dumb. But the wisdom that the world celebrates and the success that the world seeks after is going in an opposite direction of the truth of God. It is when we think we are smartest that we are making our gravest mistakes. It is when we think we are strongest that we are in most danger of falling.

Instead of making the gospel only for the extra bright and super successful, God has given the gospel to little children. God has made the plan of salvation gloriously uncomplicated. You do not need a PhD to grasp it. You do not need some sort of special secret knowledge to believe it. You do not need to be of the wealthy, ruling class to get into the kingdom of God. No, God has sent salvation to the simple, because this is the most glorifying thing he could have done.

Let us be a people who thank God and praise him for his choice. He glorifies himself in a sweet, kind way. He does not focus his grace only on the strong and powerful. He focuses his grace on weak ones like me. Only a God secure in his own glory and power and position could do such a thing. And we should be truly grateful.

Adding Nothing to the Gospel

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is deeply concerned about the gospel and its purity. Early in the letter, Paul speaks as harshly as we ever see him speak in Scripture. Inspired by God, the apostle pronounces that anyone who preaches any gospel other than the gospel that Paul had already been preaching should be accursed.

Galatians 1:6–9 – 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

In case the language of accursed is not clear, that is Paul saying that a person who would preach a false gospel, a warped and non-gospel gospel, should be thrown by God into hell forever. Thus, we can fairly conclude that this is a big deal.

When we see this strong language used in the beginning of the book, we should be asking two questions. First, we should be asking what it is that is being proclaimed by the false teachers in Galatia. What is it that Paul is speaking so harshly against? Added to that, we should ask if there is anything like that in our generation that we need to watch out to avoid.

For several paragraphs in chapters 1-2, Paul tells his story and defends the gospel as he has preached it. He is careful to let the Galatians know that he is not preaching what he preaches to be a man-pleaser. Paul heard the gospel as revelation from Jesus himself. And Paul preached the gospel with clarity. Paul did travel to Jerusalem to compare notes with the apostles after 14 years of being saved, but nothing in his gospel changed, not even a little bit.

So, what is Paul speaking out against? We see a hint early in chapter 2 as Paul talks about his trip to Jerusalem to conference with Peter and James.

Galatians 2:1–3 – 1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2 I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. 3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.

To our modern ears, verse 3 seems to come out of left field. But, if we will pay attention, verse 3 brings to light a very significant element of the gospel that is in danger of being lost. The reason that Paul points out that Titus was not compelled to be circumcised is that this was what certain Jewish believers were attempting to add to the simple gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. These false teachers, known as Judaizers, believed that gentiles, because of their ethnicity and background, should be forced to submit to particular rituals and restrictions in order to be counted as Christians.

Now, we must grasp that, to some, this argument was quite persuasive. In fact, Peter almost falls for it as Paul points out later in chapter 2. Why was this persuasive? For centuries, there had been a clear difference in status between Jew and gentile in the Old Testament. The Jews were the chosen people of God. The Jews were the ones given the law of God, a good and perfect and holy law. And Old Testament gentiles who wanted salvation had to come to Israel and submit to the laws of God, including circumcision, in order to be forgiven.

Is it possible, then, now that Christ has come, that there is no longer any sort of division that is to be made in the church between people of differing ethnicities and backgrounds? What if the gentiles had been previously cruel and oppressive to the Jews? What if the gentiles had lived particularly immoral lives in their worship of false gods before their conversion? Should those gentiles not be put on equal footing with the Jews by being forced to obey the law that the gentiles had previously not known? Should they not at least still be forced to go through circumcision?

No! Paul is emphatic here. Titus was not forced to be circumcised. No gentile should be forced to be circumcised. There is no differing requirement for the gospel based on one’s ethnicity. And to add such a thing is to warp and destroy the gospel. Look why Paul says that he would not submit to those who pushed the addition of law requirements for gentiles.

Galatians 2:5 – to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

Paul did not allow the addition of ethnic laws to the gospel because he wanted to preserve the gospel. Get this. Paul would not allow an addition of something beyond the gospel to the gospel because to do so would lose the gospel. That is why not adding to the gospel preserves the gospel.

Do we face anything like this today? Are there any who would threaten the gospel? Yes, there surely are. Any person who adds to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ any element that is more than salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is warping and destroying the gospel—they are preaching a non-gospel. We should beware, then, of who might be willing to add to the gospel. Religious cults add to the gospel. Legalistic moralists can come dangerously close to adding to the gospel. But what is most striking in our culture for today is the fact that, in some corners of evangelicalism in the United States, believers are bringing back into their discussion of the gospel divisions, and even at times new requirements for penance or shaming, based solely on ethnicity.

But the word of God is abundantly clear that, once we are in Christ, we take on brand new identities. No, we do not lose our ethnicity or culture. But we find who we are as defined by Christ and not by the past animosities that used to define us. Jews and gentiles hated one another. The supposed upper class looked down and mistreated the lower class. The rich often ignored the poor. But once we are in Christ, we take on the identity of Christian, and that identity is more important than all that went before.

Galatians 3:26-29- 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

The danger that we must avoid in today’s culture is to add to the gospel rules, laws, or penances that would elevate any group based on their ethnicity or past or denigrate any group based on their ethnicity or past. In Christ, we see that we are one family of God. The blood of Jesus Christ helps us to do away with all that socially divides us.

In Galatians, inspired by God, Paul particularly removes from the table any notion of making gentiles jump through extra hoops to be saved simply because of their gentile past. Paul also particularly removes any notion that Jews in the church were to be elevated to a higher position because of the oppression they faced at the hands of the gentiles. Instead, Paul was clear that, in Christ, we are now one family. And this principle must define the church of the Lord Jesus today. If we are going to keep the gospel, if we are going to preserve the genuine promise of God as Paul did in this book, we must not allow secular thought to bring additions to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that divide us based on our pasts, good or bad. Because the gospel is so plain and so transformative, we must identify as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ first and foremost, and we must avoid anything else that we could welcome into our identities that would then splinter us based on social status, former religion, skin tone, native language, or anything else like these.

May God protect his church from any temptation to add anything to the only saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Rejecting a Warning from Heaven

One problem that some express with biblical Christianity is the concept of judgment. Those who oppose the faith have a strong dislike of the idea that God would cast into hell those who do not come to him for salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. They feel that this is unfair, unkind, or simply not open-minded enough.

But a look at the word of God, in just about any place in the word of God, will show that this has indeed always been the way of God. The Lord has had a particular way that he is to be approached. The Lord has defined a particular way that his favor is granted. And those who refuse him by refusing to come to him in the way he defines are subject to his judgment.

In the Old Testament, this was true of the sacrificial system. Individuals were told by God exactly what offerings to offer in order to be forgiven. God told them also what animals could be offered that would have been unacceptable. What do you suppose would have been the right response of God to one who would slaughter a pig on the altar instead of a lamb? That person would not have found the forgiveness of god, no matter how much that person wanted the pig to be the right offering. It simply was not acceptable to the Lord.

Or how about this warning I came across in my daily reading from Hebrews 12?

Hebrews 12:25- See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.

In the Old Testament, people did not escape the judgment of God when they heard his warnings given from men on earth. Nobody called this unfair. If a prophet of God gave you a warning, it was your responsibility to follow the direction of that prophet to be in the favor of God. Well, take the argument from the lesser to the greater. If we know that ignoring a warning from earth leaves us under judgment, how much worse for us must it be if we ignore the voice of God warning us from heaven?

The Holy Scriptures are the voice of God going out over the entire world. God has made it plain in the word of God that there is one and only one way to approach him. That way is broad, meaning that it is open to all people of all nations and all backgrounds. Any person, rich or poor, young or old, free or slave, man or woman, any person anywhere who will repent of their sin and come to Jesus in faith will find forgiveness.

But that way is also narrow. How? It is the only way. God is in no way obligated to make a second path to his grace. God has provided the entrance. God has provided the Savior. God has provided the only sacrifice that can cover our sins. To reject that in favor of anything else, no matter how nice it may seem is to reject the grace of the one who speaks from heaven. And there is no life to be found in that sort of rejection.

You Need a 100% Savior

The good news of the gospel is only the good news of the gospel because we know the bad news of our situation outside of the gospel. One problem in our society today is that many people do not have a clear understanding of the depth of our sin or the state in which we stand before our Lord. Many have a mistaken understanding of what is required to make it to heaven and how far short of that standard we all fall.

So, take a peek at this text in Psalm 24. (As a side note, I find it neat that this came up in my daily reading only a day or so after I had this very conversation with a friend.)

Psalm 24:3-5

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
5 He will receive blessing from the Lord
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

The poetry here asks a simple question: Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? More simply put, who can make it into God’s presence, or who can go to heaven? That is a good question, a reasonable question, and important question.

The answer to the question is a tough one to swallow. To make it into the presence of the Lord, one must have clean hands and a pure heart. One must be free from acting out our sinful desires—clean hands. And one must be free even from those corrupting desires—a pure heart.

Stop and measure yourself. Are your hands clean? Have you always done and said all that is right? Have you always physically avoided all that God calls sin? Have you lived out an absolute outward perfection? An honest answer here is no.

What about your heart? Even if you have been a pretty nice person, has your heart been perfect? Have you not only refused to act on evil desires, but have you also never had such desires? If your heart has ever shown a sign of corruption, you lack total purity of heart. And we see ourselves as twice guilty.

If we are measured by the standards of verses 3-4, we have no hope. None of us are clean and pure enough on our own. We have all failed. We have all had evil desires. Not one of us is pure enough to walk into heaven. WE must have something outside of us to give us the righteousness, the perfection, the goodness we lack.

Then notice verse 5, “He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” Who can go to heaven? That perfect person with clean hands and a pure heart can go, but not me. But then the psalmist tells us that the one who can go to heaven receives blessing and righteousness from God. Receiving righteousness indicates to us that God gives us righteousness as a gift. So the person who can go, the one with the clean hands and the pure heart, that person has those things because he has received those things from the Lord as a gift.

So, here is the truth. We are totally incapable of making it to heaven based on our own goodness. WE have nothing to bring to the table. Our hands are not clean. Our hearts are not pure. WE must receive cleanness and purity, righteousness, as a gift from the Lord. We need a Savior. We do not need a Savior who does a little work to make us a little better so that we can pull ourselves up to the throne of God. No, we need a 100% Savior who does 100% of the work to grant us 100% of the forgiveness and 100% of the righteousness we need. If we only have a 50% savior, we are damned. If we have a 99% savior, we are lost forever. Only a 100% Savior, one who gives us full forgiveness and perfect, God-level righteousness credited to our accounts can save us.

This is, of course the beauty of biblical Christianity. Jesus lived perfect righteousness as God the Son in human flesh. And Jesus will credit us with his purity, not because we have lived it out, but because he gives it to us as a gift. This is salvation by grace through faith in Christ and his finished work. And this is our only way to heaven. Jesus is the 100% Savior we must have to enter the presence of the Lord.