Category Archives: The Basics

I thought you were a Christian, Part 3 – Legalism

As soon as we start talking about obedience, some will think of legalism.  It’s kind of a buzz word. It’s something I’ve been accused of several times though I make continued attempts at clarity.

First, let’s define legalism. Since the word does not occur in the Bible, let’s looks at some other definitions.

According to Wikipedia:

Legalism, in Christian theology, is a pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on law or codes of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.

According to

  1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit.
  2. Theology.
    • a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
    • b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.

These definitions make three points: 1) the doctrine of salvation/redemption is at stake; 2) legalism refers to an over-emphasis or pre-eminence; 3) legalism is used for strict obedience to the law.

The Doctrine of Salvation/Redemtion is at Stake
So why does one definition of legalism put the doctrine of salvation/redemption at stake? Christianity teaches that being saved is a work that only God can do and only He does it (Ephesians 2:8-9). God the Father supplied Jesus Christ, His Son, to pay fully for sinners to be saved. If we begin to add any stipulation beyond faith for people to be saved, then we convey a gospel that is no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-9).

Over-emphasis or Pre-eminence
Although obedience is important, it is not the primary focus. Faith in Jesus Christ is the primary focus of obedience. As Romans 14:23 says, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”. We need to have faith in Jesus’ full life and death of obedience. If we elevate our own obedience above His, which was given to us by God’s grace, then we tread on the ground of legalism.

Strict Obedience
Our own obedience should be strict, so long as we keep the above two points in mind: salvation is by faith alone and our obedience to God is only obedience if it is grounded in faith. Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel is the power of God for all of salvation, each part. It is the power to change our hearts as well as the power by which we obey. And basing our obedience by faith on God’s word we guarantee growth (1 Thessalonians 2:13). When we read Philippians 3 we see how convicted Paul was that He needed to press on and strain forward.

So, the word legalism has at least three uses. In the first it describes a distorted gospel into what is no gospel at all, a salvation based on how good you are. The second use describes confused priorities: God should always be primary in our lives and His gifts of grace should be central, just as God and His grace is central in our salvation. The third use just means strict obedience. Every Christian should be strictly obedient but always consious that only by faith do we please God. But we must continue to deal with new applications of the Bible, such as sky-diving (are we taking our lives into our hands unnessasarily?), eating fast-food (can we eat it and remain/become more healthy by doing so?), video games (what are the implications of imaginary paticapatory violence?), television (it what ways does watching TV impact our conscience?). The Bible applies to these areas, as it does to every area of life. But are we legalistic in our application?

I thought you were a Christian, Part 2

As promised, though perhaps I waited too long, here is a short reflection on Colossians 1:21-23,

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

Does this describe you as a Christian? Can you point to a time where you were “alienated and hostile in mind”? Can you point to “evil deeds” you did? Are these things behind you? I’m not speaking of being perfect now but Paul definitely means that you have left your hostility toward God and your evil deeds are in the past. There should be a marked difference between now and who you “once were”.

Paul’s major point though, is that “you … He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death”. Who was in the flesh reconciling you? Jesus, who is God, reconciled you with God the Father. It was Jesus’ earthly work to take on a body like your body, live perfectly and die in your place.

And what was His purpose in all this? “In order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him”. That’s the only way it’s doing to happen, if Jesus presents you before the Father as holy (because Jesus lived a holy life) AND blameless (because Jesus live a blameless live) AND above reproach (because Jesus life a life above reproach).

And then comes the “if”. Jesus has reconciled us IF. Many Christians never bother to take this “if” seriously. But if someone says “I thought you were a Christian”. You know you’re not following this “if”. And what are the contents of the “if”? We must “continue in the faith”. And not in a haphazzard way. We need to be “stable and steadfast”. There’s no room for wavering. Cannot “shift from the hope of the gospel that you heard”. And what is that gospel? It is the one we heard at our conversion, the word of Christ. It is the one that accords with the purpose for which God has created things, just as creation proclaims it everywhere. And it is also that special insight we have of who God is, His ways in history and who we are, that Paul helps to disclose to us in the Bible.

So what does it mean to obey what God has told us in the Bible? That’s for next time.

I thought you were a Christian, Part 1

A few months ago my wife and a few friends were on a mission trip together. One of our friends works at a local restaurant with several of my “fellow seminarians”.

According to the seminary admissions office, each seminary student must be a Christian. How would you imagine these seminary students acted as they served tables at this restaurant? Do you think you would have recognized the light of Christ in them? From the descriptions of my friend (who does not attend seminary), I wouldn’t have recognized them as Christians.

Their jokes, attitudes and service were so consistently poor that my friend said to one of them, “I thought you were a Christian”.

As I witness not only the students at the seminary (including myself) but also teachers at a local Christian school and the attending students, I am more and more convinced that Christians are not aware of why they are going to heaven and what a Christian should be doing along the way.

In that context I’m going to go through several verses of Scripture to help myself and any readers understand why we should either conform ourselves to Scripture or stop calling ourselves Christians.

In my next post, I’ll look at Colossians 1:21-23:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He
has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to
present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting
from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed
in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

God’s promise of reality

The question surprised me at first, probably because it was asked in a seminary classroom, “how were people in the Old Testament saved?”

Salvation is only through Jesus Christ and always has been, that’s the short answer. But why?

The key is the nature and character of God. He is sovereign over all things so nothing can thwart His will or surprise Him. God is in full control of all things (Ephesians 1:11). His sovereignty ensures that nothing can interrupt or postpone God’s decision for something or anything to happen.

According to Ephesians 1:3-5, God the Father chose “before the foundation of the world” everyone He would save. Based on His sovereignty, how could anything else happen except those whom He specified for salvation will actually be saved? There is no other alternative. If God “works all things according to the counsel of His will” then how could His people not “be holy and blameless before Him”?

But God has not cloaked this entire work in secret. In the passages above He reveals it. Then He has also issued promises through which salvation comes (Romans 10:17). These promises have been declared throughout time, for example: Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”; Isaiah 44:22, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other”; and, John 6:40, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”. When God determines before the foundation of the earth who will be saved and doubly ensures it by issuing faithful promises, we have no cause to doubt Him (Hebrews 6:13-20).

So, those in the Old Testament times were saved by trusting in the promises God made. When they believed His promise, they were saved, just as we are in these last days. Romans 8:29-30 gives us the culmination of our thinking – God has already chosen the saved and promised He would provide salvation. Old Testament believers trusted God to provide their salvation. We trust that God has provided our salvation through Jesus Christ. Verse 30 reads, “those whom [God] justified [God] also glorified”. God assures us here that His promise is a promise of reality. It is as solid as if justification (the moment He saved us) and glorification (when we enter heaven as perfect) happened at the same time. There is no difference between God’s promise and reality.

Am I saved? And Hebrews 6

This blog has a great little feature where I can see if someone types a search string in Google or Yahoo or something in order to find this site. One string implied a person (I never know who) was searching for assurance of their salvation in light of Hebrews 6. I recently encountered this when discussing difficult passages in general. Yesterday it was brought up again dealing with assurance of salvation. I guess it’s time to look at it.

With the Bible especially, the difficult passages should be viewed in light of the passages that more simply convey their point. Hebrews 6 often presents a difficult point. Why? Because it conveys a point that seems to be contradicted in other places of the Bible – our secure faith. So, is our faith secure? First, we will look at the passages that convey their point simply.

Romans 8:29-30 (ESV) reads,

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

All that are foreknown by God are predestined. All that are predestined are called. All that are called are justified. All that are justified are glorified when they die. There is no disconnect, no time where we opt-out.

Romans 8:38-39 reads,

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Not only is it not in ourselves to leave, nothing else in all creation can remove our salvation.

John 10:28-30 Jesus says,

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.

Jesus promises eternal life that cannot be removed (John 17:3).

1 Peter 1:3-5 reads,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

“An inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you”. Our salvation is secure, kept in heaven for us. You are guarded for salvation.

Our justification is from God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Consider how much He has done! Here is what I mean (in no particular order): repentance is from God, Acts 5:31 and Acts 11:18; belief is from God, Philippians 1:29; faith is from God, Ephesians 2:8-9; even our continual work in sanctification is by God, Philippians 2:12-13; our justification is from God, Romans 3:24. Though all these are from God, we still have responsibility to obey Him by working out our own salvation through His Spirit. But once we are saved, there is no way to lose our salvation. Since we did nothing for it, how could we lose it by doing or not doing something?

Since we know our salvation is secure once we are saved, how do we know we are saved initially? Romans 10:9 reads, “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. Have you confessed that Jesus is the Master of your life, your Lord? Have you believed that Jesus was completely righteous (without sin), took the punishment of death for your sins and rose again to show that God accepted you as His child through Jesus’ propitiatory death? If so then you are saved. For further reading I would encourage you to read 1 John because in 1 John 5:13 John writes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life”.

So, what about Hebrews 6?
First, an extremely important rule of reading anything is that it should be taken in context. We have gone over the assurance of our salvation. So we know that the Bible teaches that “you may know that you have eternal life”. How does Hebrews 6 fit in?

Far too often when this question arises the reader/questioner does not make it beyond verse six or eight. In verses one and two we are entreated to become mature because we know the elementary things. In verse three the author prays that we will go on from the elementary things, with God’s permission. Why will we go on from the elementary things to the mature things? Verse four and five,

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come

We should not be continually going over these elementary things because those who came to repentance, were enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come and again need to be restored to repentance, now have no hope. Once people experience these things it is no help to go back again to restore their repentance through the elementary things. Why is this so grievous? Verse six, “if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt”. Those who have such an intimate experience yet fall away are crucifying the Son of God again and holding Him up to contempt. This is truly grievous! Verse seven and eight give a short parable contrasting soils that are watered equally by God yet one “produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated” and the other “bears thorns and thistles”.

Wow! What can we conclude? Often the assumption is made that tasting the heavenly gift, sharing in the Holy Spirit, tasting the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come all indicate a person’s salvation. It is at this point we must not stop reading. Verse nine reads, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” The author is making an appeal – we’re talking about this stuff but in your case it’s different. They spoke “in this way” about being stuck in the elementary things and those who fell away. “Yet [!] in your case” – their case was different. “Beloved”, beloved is often used of those who are saved. Compared to the list of other interactions, this one we can recognize as a term of endearment to those who are saved. The author is not worried at all about them. They have a different case. “We feel sure of better things”, the author(s) feel that better things are set for the beloved. If the previous verses were speaking about the loss of salvation then surely there would be some room to be concerned about the beloved. But this is not so, they are even “sure” of better things. What are these better things? The better things are “things that belong to salvation”. So these former things do not belong to salvation. The author was not speaking about someone who was saved in verses four through six. That was something different, “now we’re talking about salvation”!

We know that verses four to six are not speaking of salvation. What do they speak of? We are told “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” in Psalm 34:8. It seems some taste but fall away, remaining in their love of darkness (John 3:19-21).

God the Trinity, defined

The Trinity always proves to be a difficult subject. It is also one of the two most brilliant revelations of the Living God (the other is the Gospel). We can learn so much about God from this revelation that it is very important to review it. Also, the Bible is much more clear if we first spend time discerning the parts of the Bible that reveal the Trinity. Most heresies can be avoided and/or refuted through a correct Biblical view of God. The objective of this post is to convey that the Bible teaches that God is triune (a trinity).

There are going to be three parts to this post – one God (what), three Persons (who), one God.

One God. In both the Old and New Testaments it is declared that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:29; 1 Cor. 8:6). God is one Being, one Essence, one Unity.

Three Persons. In both the Old and New Testaments there is mention of distinctions in God. One of the first is in Genesis 1:2. The same is done in the New Testament. There are many occasions. I will only point out a few. In the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19, Jesus marks out the three Persons of God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Another is John 14:26 when Jesus tells about the “Helper” coming from the Father. The word used in 14:16 to describe the Helper as “another” is a Greek word that sets Jesus and the Helper as equals. In both passages Jesus establishes equality and separation among the three Persons.

One God. Given that the Bible describes these two characteristics of God, it is our job to reconcile them. On the one hand, there is One God. On the other hand, there is equality and separation within the One God. The early church leaders chose to call the separations “persons” because of the personal nature they each convey. We must understand that this is not a contradiction. There are two different categories being discussed, God and Persons.

It may help to review some common examples.

First, there is one woman. She is a mother, daughter and wife. This is an attempt to show the unity of God. Where it is strong in unity, it fails in division. God is not One in the sense that He can be viewed in three different relationships. There are actual distinctions. When Jesus talks to the Father, He is not talking to Himself (John 17:1-3, Jesus praying to the Father for you). There is a real separation, a real relationship between the Father and Jesus.

Second, there is a chain. It has three links. God is more than a compilation of Persons. God is One in the sense that His essence is One. The three Persons are One is essence.

Third, math offers examples. 1+1+1=3 but that is not true with God. More of a likeness would be 1 x 1 x 1 = 1. Another would be a triangle. There are three corners but one triangle. This also borders the chain example but is closer.

Lastly, I have heard it best stated this way: The Father is God; Jesus is God; The Holy Spirit is God; The Father is not Jesus; The Father is not the Holy Spirit; Jesus is not the Father; Jesus is not the Holy Spirit; The Holy Spirit is not the Father; The Holy Spirit is not Jesus. God is One is essence and three in Person. We are answering the questions, “What?” and “Who?” – One What: God; three Who’s: the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit.

For further study see John 1:1-3;14, note verse 14 – Jesus is the Word – and verse 3 where all things came into existence through Him, which means He could not be one of the created or it would be everything except one.