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.”

A Call to Repentance

When we call people to salvation in the Lord Jesus, if we are being most biblical, we call people to repent and believe. Both of those terms are used time and time again to depict how a person comes to salvation. The two are not separate things.

We know in general what believing in Jesus looks like. But what does repentance look like? WE have pictures in the Bible. IN fact, we see the Lord give us a picture of repentance at the end of the book of Hosea.

God, speaking particularly to Israel, has called them out for their sinful unfaithfulness to him. But in the final chapter of this prophecy, he calls them to repent.

Hosea 14:1-3

1 Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
2 Take with you words
and return to the Lord;
say to him,
“Take away all iniquity;
accept what is good,
and we will pay with bulls
the vows of our lips.
3 Assyria shall not save us;
we will not ride on horses;
and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’
to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.”

The word for return here in verse 1 is a repentance word. It literally means to turn back or return, to turn from one thing or direction to another. The word could speak of a person walking in one direction and making a turn. Or it could mean a person turning back from evil and toward righteousness. Obviously, in this context, God is calling Israel to a spiritual change of direction.

In verse 1, we see that returning involves a turning from their iniquity toward the Lord their God. They are to stop chasing after their sin and start (or start again) seeking after the Lord.

In verse 2, God tells them what they should be saying: Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. This is the people going to God, seeking forgiveness for their past wrongs and promising to obey the commands they have been previously disobeying. They are saying they have been wrong in the past, but, from now on, they will return to being under his lordship.

In verse 3, the people are to say to God that they will no longer run to foreign nations for their deliverance. Instead, they will trust in him. They will not trust in their own prowess on the battlefield, mounting themselves on horses, but will trust in the Lord’s protection. It is a turning from self-reliance to reliance on God. It is the kind of thing that God had commanded Israel to do, to trust in him instead of the pagan nations around them, but they were refusing to do.

At the end of verse 3, the people were to say, “And we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.” The nation had fought against God by looking at their own inventions, the crafting of idols, and declaring things they put together to be their deities. Repentance would mean that they stop seeing false things as divine, and they would only call God the one true God. And in this repentance the people would find grace.

In truth, what Israel needed to do is very much the same for us today. A person who repents of sin to turn to Christ in faith must turn from self-reliance. We must stop thinking that we are in charge of our lives. WE must stop thinking that we can rely on sinful things to take care of ourselves. We must determine that we desire to follow and obey the Lord. And we must stop calling divine that which is not God. Repentance involves surrendering to the Lord, turning from self and all other evils, and fully turning toward the God who made us. Repentance involves bowing before the throne of God and declaring him our Master.

Part of that repentance is belief, faith. It requires repentance for a person to believe the truth about Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh who came to earth. Jesus lived a perfect life. Jesus died a sacrificial death. Jesus rose from the grave. Jesus forgives all who come to him in faith. There is no religious action or ceremony that contributes to our salvation. No act earns us God’s favor. Only the one who comes to Jesus, repenting, empty-handed, relying on him and him alone will be saved. This requires a repenting belief in Jesus apart from works. And this is how we can say that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And this is how we can say that a person must repent and believe to be saved.

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.

God Sent Me-Some Thoughts on the Sovereignty of God and the Freedom of Man

How do you deal with the issue of the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man? Of course we know that this issue has been one of struggle and controversy among Christians for centuries. The issue can seem quite mysterious. Scripture does not always let us know how the sovereign hand of God and the choices of humanity work. But some places in Scripture do a lovely job of pulling back the veil and letting us see.

Consider the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. In chapter 37, we learn that Joseph’s brothers hated him. They hated that his father preferred him to them. They hated that Joseph had given a bad report of their activity to their father. They hated that Joseph told them of dreams in which he was in a place of honor and authority over them. And so the brothers determined to do something about it.

You remember the story, don’t you? Joseph’s brothers first decided to kill him. Then they changed their minds and determined to sell him to slave-traders. And just like that, Joseph was on his way to Egypt.

Now, whose choice was it to send Joseph to Egypt? We all would say that Joseph’s brothers chose to send him to Egypt. They, by their free will, did exactly what their hearts longed to do. They certainly sinned against God and committed what, in later Scripture, would be ruled a capital offense.

But look at the words of Joseph to his brothers when they were reunited.

Genesis 45:4-8 – 4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Three times in that paragraph, Joseph says to his brothers that God sent him to Egypt. Three times, Joseph made it absolutely clear that his presence in Egypt was a sovereign work of the Almighty. Three times is significant.

So, who sent Joseph to Egypt? Whose choice was ultimate? According to Joseph, God’s choice, God’s hand, God’s sovereignty was ultimate. But, in chapter 37, it was clear that the brothers were choosing based on their personal desires, acting according to their understanding of their own freedom. In 42:21-22, the brothers admit that they saw Joseph’s distress and made a choice to sell him anyway. They knew they were guilty. They made no indication of being forced to act under compulsion against what they would have wanted.

So, we see two things. We see that the brothers acted exactly as they desired. They felt free. They did exactly what they naturally would have wanted to do. And yet, according to a greater understanding, according to God’s word, they acted under the direct hand of God to do what God sovereignly determined to do.

When we discuss God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, do not let yourself be confused. One of the big objections to the doctrine is that, if God is sovereign over our affairs, he must be forcing people away from himself by his sovereign decree. The objection is that God must be reaching into the hearts of basically good or even neutral people and driving them toward the devil. But such is not the case. The word of God is clear that men do, in almost all cases, exactly what they want to do. And the God who made us all is still over it all, sovereign, in control.

In truth, the biblical picture of God changing our will to match his will is not often exposed to us. The place it happens most clearly is when people who are naturally evil are drawn to the Lord for salvation. There we see the mighty and sovereign hand of God working to bring into sinful people new life and new desires that would not be theirs naturally.

So, in a super-simple summary, we can say that the sovereignty of God is fully compatible with the freedom of mankind in almost all circumstances. Joseph’s brothers did exactly what they freely wanted to do. They were fully to blame for their sin. And yet the sovereign, almighty, omniscient working of God brought about that Joseph would be in Egypt saving lives and preserving the promise of God. The same sort of thing can be said for hundreds of other events in the Bible where God was sovereign even as evil men made evil choices.

What about our salvation? God does not have to interfere with a human being’s freedom for any person to reject him. That is the natural disposition of the human heart. But for any human being to be saved, the Lord God must bring a dead heart to life (Eph. 2:1-4), God must forcefully and powerfully draw us to himself (John 6:44, 65), God must give us new birth so that we can see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). It is in turning us from evil to himself that God must take an action to interpose his sovereignty over our hearts to change our course. In that change, we will make an honest choice. That choice, however, is preceded by a sovereign move of God that we cannot detect on our own to move us to desire what we would not naturally desire, as no human being, on our own seeks God (Rom 3:10-12). Thus, the salvation of any person is all of grace, a gift given by God.

Is man free? Of course man is free. But man is not more free than God. Is God sovereign? He has to be. Otherwise, if the universe is spinning on its own without the control of the Lord, there is no guarantee of the promises of God. If the universe is more free than God, then God is not God.

We are not often privileged to see behind the veil and understand when something is being done by the sovereignty of God in comparison to the full freedom of mankind. But we know that God is God and we are not. We know that God works in all things. We know that God moves people where he wants them even as they act according to their own deepest desires. And we know from his word that, for a sinfully dead heart to desire him, that heart must be supernaturally changed by God.

Who put Joseph in Egypt? Joseph’s brothers acted according to their freedom. God moved and sovereignly put Joseph where he wanted him. Let us understand that God is God, working in ways we cannot see, but always working in perfect righteousness.

Faith is a Gift

Why don’t they believe? This is a common question. It may be the most common objection that I know of to a reformed understanding of salvation. People, out of a desire to understand why some people do not entrust themselves to Christ, will raise the question of why this would happen. And the only place they can land where they are comfortable is to say that people do not believe because, though God gave them every opportunity, they simply chose not to.

I thought about this in a recent rereading of Matthew. In our church, we will soon be returning to Matthew for our sermon series, and I thought I’d better remind myself of what has passed. And in Matthew 13, Jesus speaks in many parables. The disciples are very curious as to why he would do so.

Do you remember how Jesus responded?

Matthew 13:10-11 – Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

Why did Jesus speak to them in parables? Why don’t they believe? To the disciples, Jesus responded by pointing out an answer that is a little different than what the disciples wanted to know. Jesus points out that, for the disciples, they should be thrilled that they do believe. Why? It was granted to them to believe. It was given to them to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. The disciples have been given a gift, a kindness from God.

Note, please, that the gift from God is a free gift. Nothing, absolutely nothing, obligates God to give the disciples this knowledge. There is nothing that would make God a bad person or a wrongdoer if he did not give it. It is a free thing that God may do, to show his kindness, for his pleasure.

Jesus then speaks to the disciples about those who do not get to hear the message clearly. He cites Isaiah 6, where the Lord told Isaiah that all his preaching will dull the sight and harden the hearts of the people to whom he preaches. And Jesus says that this is what is happening with the parables.

But what are we to do with that information? How are we supposed to feel? Jesus says this to the disciples.

Matthew 13:16-17 – 16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

What the disciples were to do was to see that they had been blessed by God. Why were they blessed by God? Were they blessed because they chose to believe? No, that is not at all what Jesus says. They were blessed in that they were granted by God the message they were hearing. It is not that they had faith that made them a step better than those around them. On the contrary, their blessing is that God gave them eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus said, “Blessed are your eyes.” He was telling them that they were blessed because God chose to reveal something to them that others around them were not receiving. They were gifted by God with the gift of faith.

Perseverance of the Saints: Better than Once Saved Always Saved

I grew up knowing that a genuine Christian could not lose his or her salvation. Though I could not explain the doctrine, I had it taught to me time and time again. A real believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, a truly forgiven sinner, could not turn from the Lord so as to fall again under God’s condemnation. And I often heard that doctrine expressed as the security of the believer or in the colloquial, “Once saved always saved.”

In truth, I believe still that any person who is a genuine believer is once saved and always saved. But I think that expression is misleading. The idea that a person is saved through the simple response to an invitation after a sermon and the praying of a prayer leads to the abuse of the biblical doctrine that tells us that the genuinely saved remain in Christ. It is maligned by those who disagree with the doctrine as being licentious, permitting a person to pray a prayer and then live however they want.

The problem with an overly simplified doctrine of security is that we lose the language and thought of the Scripture as we speak of it. We get pithy in our claims, and we begin to say things that are true, or tru-ish, but which do not contain the full counsel of God on the issue.

Consider the words of Paul in Philippians 3. I believe wholeheartedly that Paul knew that he was saved. Paul knew that he could not be eternally lost. Christ had made him alive, forgiven his sins, and granted him a place with Christ for eternity. Paul had no doubt about his salvation. But Paul did not speak of his salvation with a casual line like once saved always saved.

Philippians 3:12-16 – 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

In this section of Scripture, Paul has been talking about his wonderful religious pedigree in Judaism. If anybody could have earned salvation through obedience to the law, by being born into the right family and performing the right rituals, Paul could have done so. But Paul knew this would not save him. He knew that all he thought had been gain for his life before Christ was really garbage when it came to earning salvation. So, as Paul says in this passage, he forgets what is behind him and looks forward.

Twice in this section, Paul describes his Christian life as pressing on. Paul strains toward the Lord. But we know that Paul has nothing to do with a self-earned, works righteousness. His letter to the Galatians is proof enough of that. Yet, the same apostle who says in Ephesians that we are saved by grace through faith here says that he strains toward the goal, pressing on to win the prize.

This language is a help to us to show that the better way to talk about our security in Christ as Christians is the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. You see, the biblical wording is never such that you get saved, and then you let go of any thought of repentance or effort. No, your efforts will never contribute to your salvation. Neither will your efforts contribute to your being kept by God. But, a truly saved person will, through the course of his or her life, put forth effort to honor the Lord. True Christians persevere, striving toward Christ.

This doctrine makes sense when you consider what truly happens in our salvation. When we were lost, our hearts opposed the Lord and the things of God. We were saved when God transformed those dead hearts to living hearts, causing us to be born again and to respond to him in faith. Suddenly, hearts that were against God now desire God. And so, genuine Christians press toward God, because our new hearts now have a gracious, God-given desire to know and to please God. We persevere in the faith because of the supernatural transformation that takes place at salvation.

Of course, this is not always a steady process. True Christians can go through seasons of doubt or rebellion. But a person with a truly changed heart by God will eventually return to the Lord. True believers will persevere, being kept by God, kept in faith, for a salvation that is unbreakable.

Some who talk of this doctrine also use the term, the preservation of the saints. That too is biblical language, as God is the one who truly, sovereignly keeps us. He loses none of his own, but raises them up on the last day.

Thus, what we see about our salvation is a beautiful, two-sided truth. We press on, straining toward the Lord, and persevere in our faith. Paul says mature believers all think like this. We also rejoice in the promise that God guards our salvation (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-5). Thus, we know that “once saved always saved” is true, but it is a scant description of a bigger and better doctrine, the perseverance of the saints.