How Good do you Have to Be to Be Saved?

Romans 4

1Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What were his experiences concerning this question of being saved by faith? 2Was it because of his good deeds that God accepted him? If so, he would have had something to boast about. But from God’s point of view Abraham had no basis at all for pride. 3For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, so God declared him to be righteous.”

4When people work, their wages are not a gift. Workers earn what they receive. 5But people are declared righteous because of their faith, not because of their work.

6King David spoke of this, describing the happiness of an undeserving sinner who is declared to be righteous:

7“Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight.

8Yes, what joy for those whose sin is no longer counted against them by the Lord.”

9Now then, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it for Gentiles, too? Well, what about Abraham? We have been saying he was declared righteous by God because of his faith. 10But how did his faith help him? Was he declared righteous only after he had been circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? The answer is that God accepted him first, and then he was circumcised later!

11The circumcision ceremony was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are made right with God by faith. 12And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.

13It is clear, then, that God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was not based on obedience to God’s law, but on the new relationship with God that comes by faith. 14So if you claim that God’s promise is for those who obey God’s law and think they are “good enough” in God’s sight, then you are saying that faith is useless. And in that case, the promise is also meaningless. 15But the law brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

(Romans 4:1-15, NLT)


The Daily DAVEotional

What is required to be saved? How good do you have to be? If you fail to live up to the law, does that disqualify you from going to heaven?

These are the kinds of questions Paul is answering in Romans 4 and he uses Abraham as his prime example to explain that faith is the key to being saved, NOT obedience to the law.

You might remember that in Acts 15, there was a pivotal moment in the early church where this issue of circumcision was debated. I wrote about this critical issue in a previous blog post here, but the summary is that some Pharisees who had been converted argued that Gentiles had to become circumcised AND adhere to the law in order to be saved. Faith in Jesus was not enough.

Paul and Barnabas argued against this view and it was brought before all of the early church leaders at what has come to be known as “the Council of Jerusalem.” Long story short, all of the church leaders agreed with Paul and Barnabas and it was determined that circumcision was not a requirement for salvation.

In this chapter of Romans, Paul makes the argument for his position. Though the details of the debate that took place at the Jerusalem Council are not revealed, Paul’s outline in this chapter could very well have been the centerpiece of his defense against circumcision as a requirement for salvation.

Paul’s argument is as follows:

    1. Abraham was justified (declared righteous) by God BEFORE he was circumcised. Circumcision was a sign that Abraham had faith and that God had accepted him.
    2. If Abraham was accepted by God before being circumcised, then the acceptance (justification) is not dependent on being circumcised. It is based on the faith that came before the circumcision.
    3. Hence, Gentiles, who are not circumcised, can also be accepted (justified) by God  based on their faith.
    4. Therefore, circumcision is not required for Gentiles to be accepted.
    5. In the same way, Jews are also accepted by God based on their faith in Jesus, not on their circumcision, since Abraham was declared righteous as a result of his faith, NOT based on his circumcision.

What does this mean for us today?

It’s not likely that many of us think about circumcision as a requirement for salvation, so what are we to make of this passage?

Though we may not be advocating for circumcision as a requirement for salvation, we have a tendency, as humans do, of adding all kinds of work-related requirements to the salvation “formula”.

We have a tendency to think that salvation is secured by placing our faith in Jesus but then it is maintained by keeping a set of religious rules, which may vary depending on your denominational or family upbringing. In this scenario, if you break one of the rules, your spirituality or even your standing in the God’s family may be questioned.

If you think about it, adding any kind of religious requirement to faith is no different than adding circumcision to faith as a requirement for acceptance.

Paul’s argument stands for circumcision or any other work you might be tempted to add. Just replace the word “circumcision” with your religious rule in the outline above and Paul’s argument still holds.

The bottom line is that faith alone justifies a person in God’s eyes, not adherence to the Old Testament law or any other modern day religious code that we might be tempted to concoct. The truth is that Jesus came to die for us precisely because we are incapable of living up to any religious code, ancient or modern.

So let’s dispel the myth that Christians must practice a, b or c rituals to become saved, or that Christians cannot participate in x, y, or z activities or they will lose their salvation. Faith in Jesus is the key, just as it has always been.

Reflection

What religious rules are you tempted to want to add as a requirement for salvation? What is the basis for emphasizing those rules (church you grew up in, family environment, general culture, etc.)?

What activities are on your “prohibited” list of things Christians shouldn’t do. For example, I grew up in a church that generally frowned upon drinking, dancing, rock music, etc. 

Why do you think we have this tendency to add requirements to the process of becoming saved or for keeping our salvation?

 

Photo by Joshua Miranda from Pexels

You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good!

Romans 3

21But now God has shown us a different way of being right in his sight—not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. 22We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done.

23For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. 25For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times. 26And he is entirely fair and just in this present time when he declares sinners to be right in his sight because they believe in Jesus.

27Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on our good deeds. It is based on our faith. 28So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. (Romans 3:21-28, NLT)


The Daily DAVEotional

Back in the day there was a popular song by Linda Ronstadt with a chorus that said, “you’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good”! (see Ronstadt YouTube video here)

It’s doubtful that Ronstadt (or whoever actually wrote the song) had Romans 3 in mind when they penned the words, but this chorus is actually the sentiment of Paul’s message in Romans 3.

Paul has spent the first 2 chapters of Romans outlining how the pagan, the moral person and even the religious person are all sinful and therefore under God’s judgment.

In this chapter, Paul finalizes his argument that all people are no good. It’s doubtful that he could bust out the lyrics as soulfully as Ronstadt but Paul’s message is essentially, “you’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good….baby you’re no good.”

Perhaps you disagree with this assessment. After all, a lot of people think that people are basically good. And many would argue that at least SOME people are good. So how can Paul say ALL people are NO GOOD?

It all comes down to how you define good. We (people) tend to define good in relative standards that make us look good and feel good about ourselves.

For example, if Hitler is the standard of bad, then I feel good about myself because I’m reasonably confident that I’m a better person than Hitler.

And that’s the problem. Everybody is using a different standard of goodness and each person’s standard tends to be derived in such a way that they themselves end up on the good end of the spectrum.

Is this not blatantly obvious? How many people would actually say they are no good? Very few, in my experience. Even the most hardened criminal is likely to point to someone whom they believe to be a worse person than they are as their comparison for measuring and evaluating goodness.

But God’s standard of goodness is different than ours. God doesn’t use Hitler or Stalin or any other authoritarian tyrant as the standard for what is good. God uses HIMSELF as the standard of goodness.

With God as the standard of goodness, we can see that being good requires us to be as good as God is, which is impossible. This is why Paul says in verse 23 that “all fall short of God’s glorious standard” and it explains how Paul can say that ALL are NO GOOD!

That may seem like really bad news, and it is, but fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. There is good news, really good news actually.

Paul states that God has created a different way for us to be made right in his sight. Before Jesus, Jews tried to maintain a right standing before God by following the Law – the long list of legal requirements as outlined in the Torah – the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Adhering to all these religious requirements (over 600 of them) proved to be impossible for even the most devout God-follower. It simply highlighted the reality that we are sinful and incapable of fully following God’s rules consistently.

God ‘s better way involves us being made right with God when we trust in Jesus to take away our sins. When Jesus died on the cross, he actually was being punished for our sins and, according to verse 25, God’s righteous anger is satisfied as a result of Jesus’s death.

When it says that God’s anger is satisfied, it’s saying that God’s punishment has been poured out on Jesus instead of on us. So when we trust Jesus to pay for our sin, we receive a full pardon from God and there is no longer any punishment reserved for us.

However, we can still choose to reject Jesus and continue to follow the old pattern for achieving a right standard before God. We can choose to be evaluated by our works and our own ability to live up to God’s moral standards. In that scenario, we will be found guilty and we will experience punishment for our sins because we’ve rejected Jesus’s alternate method of paying for the penalty of our sins.

Or we can choose the better way…trust Jesus, receive a full pardon for all of our sin and experience a right standing with God that saves us from the punishment that we actually deserve!

Reflection

What is the standard you have been using for determining goodness? How close is your standard to the one Paul says that God is actually using?

What would you say to a person who claims to be a good person?

What would you say to someone who claims that it’s not fair that God would condemn anyone to an eternity in hell? What arguments would you make to demonstrate that it is fair and just?

 

Photo by Nick Gavrilov on Unsplash

Fake News and Cancel Culture in the New Testament

Luke 23

1Then the entire council took Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman governor. 2They began at once to state their case: “This man has been leading our people to ruin by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.”

3So Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “Yes, it is as you say.”

4Pilate turned to the leading priests and to the crowd and said, “I find nothing wrong with this man!”

5Then they became desperate. “But he is causing riots everywhere he goes, all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!”

. . . . .

13Then Pilate called together the leading priests and other religious leaders, along with the people, 14and he announced his verdict. “You brought this man to me, accusing him of leading a revolt. I have examined him thoroughly on this point in your presence and find him innocent. 15Herod came to the same conclusion and sent him back to us. Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty. 16So I will have him flogged, but then I will release him.”

18Then a mighty roar rose from the crowd, and with one voice they shouted, “Kill him, and release Barabbas to us!” 19(Barabbas was in prison for murder and for taking part in an insurrection in Jerusalem against the government.) 20Pilate argued with them, because he wanted to release Jesus. 21But they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Luke 23:1-5; 13-21, NLT)

Acts 24

1Five days later Ananias, the high priest, arrived with some of the Jewish leaders and the lawyer Tertullus, to press charges against Paul.  2When Paul was called in, Tertullus laid charges against Paul in the following address to the governor:

“Your Excellency, you have given peace to us Jews and have enacted reforms for us. 3And for all of this we are very grateful to you. 4But lest I bore you, kindly give me your attention for only a moment as I briefly outline our case against this man. 5For we have found him to be a troublemaker, a man who is constantly inciting the Jews throughout the world to riots and rebellions against the Roman government. He is a ringleader of the sect known as the Nazarenes. 6Moreover he was trying to defile the Temple when we arrested him. 7but Lysias, the commander of the garrison, came and took him violently away from us, commanding his accusers to come before you.8You can find out the truth of our accusations by examining him yourself.”  9Then the other Jews chimed in, declaring that everything Tertullus said was true. (Acts 24:1-9, NLT)


The Daily DAVEotional

One of the advantages of the Grant Horner Bible reading system is that you begin to see how biblical events relate to each other. This is because each day, the reader reads one chapter from 10 different sections of Scripture. Since each section has a unique number of chapters, the number of days it will take the reader to read through each section is different, creating a unique “playlist” of chapters to read each day.

A few days ago, in consecutive days, I read Luke 23 and then Acts 24. I was amazed to see two different scenarios that played out in almost identical fashion.

In the Luke chapter, Jesus is arrested and appears before the Jewish Council, who then take Him before the Roman authorities to plead their case and seek punishment.

The Council leaders create a false narrative in order to see Jesus prosecuted to the fullest. What was Jesus’s crime? Jesus was accused of telling people not to pay their taxes. However, we know this is false. It’s a New Testament version of “fake news.”

In Luke 20:20, the Jewish leaders had sent “secret agents”, who pretended to be honest men, but were really trying to entrap Jesus. They had asked Jesus specifically if it was right to pay taxes to the Roman government. Jesus sees through their deception and tells them to grab a Roman coin.

“Who’s image is on the coin”, Jesus asked.

They replied, “Caesar’s”.

Jesus responds by telling them, “give to Caesar what is belongs to him and everything that belongs to God should be given to God.”

Now here we are, four chapters later and the story is that Jesus tells people not to pay their taxes. In verse 5, the Council’s desperation unfolds as they claim, without evidence, that Jesus is causing riots everywhere he goes.

Later, Pilate declares Jesus innocent of the charge of revolt, mostly because there’s no evidence whatsoever to support the charge. But that no longer matters because by this time, a mob of people have joined in to promote the false accusations, insisting that Jesus be crucified. Pilate, in an act of cowardice and weak leadership, gives in to the mob and allows Jesus, a man he knows to be innocent, to be crucified.

In the Acts story, the names are changed but the scenario unfolds in almost exactly the same way.

Paul is the accused now instead of Jesus. What is Paul accused of? Inciting riots wherever he goes. 

Do you see a pattern here?

After Paul is accused of being a troublemaker and inciting riots, other people chimed in, agreeing that it was true (verse 9).

So, the formula for using a fake narrative to get your enemy canceled seems to be:

    1. Find some powerful or influential people to accuse your enemy of something egregious, even if it’s not true.
    2. Get other people to repeat and vocalize the false narrative, creating a viral effect.
    3. Take the charge to someone who has the power to exact punishment.
    4. Use the power of the mob’s outrage to have your enemy canceled.

A few things I noticed in these two passages:

First, the people leading the charge against the accused are the same, the Jewish leaders. Though they may not be the exact same leaders in both cases, it’s interesting to note that this group of people, who should be the harbingers of truth and justice, ultimately wield their power for their own political purposes.

Secondly, while Jesus doesn’t answer His accusers, Paul speaks out and defends himself (we see this more clearly in the later verses of Acts 24, which were not included in this post for the sake of brevity).

Third, the outcome was slightly different in each case. In the case of Jesus, He is condemned to death mostly because of Pilate’s unwillingness to stand up to the people and do what he knows is right.

Paul’s situation dragged on, not because Felix was standing up to the mob, but because he was greedy and was hoping Paul would pay his way out of his predicament. He also wanted to gain favor with the Jews so he kept Paul’s case open for two years.

The last thing I notice, is that despite the injustice of it all, God uses both situations to fulfill His purposes.  Jesus’s injustice sends Him to the cross where He secures the salvation of the entire human race, while Paul, because of his situation, is able to take the gospel to Rome. Hundreds, if not thousands came to Christ even while Paul was in chains.

Reflection

When have you experienced an injustice that you didn’t understand? How did God use that situation to accomplish greater purposes in you and around you?

What do you think is the appropriate response if you’re being falsely accused? Should you keep quiet, much like Jesus did, or do you think it’s ok to defend yourself as Paul did?

What safety measures can you take to ensure that you don’t unwittingly become part of a mob that unjustly seeks to cancel others?

 

Photo by Joshua Miranda from Pexels

A Pivotal Council in the Early Church

While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the Christians: “Unless you keep the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  2Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing with them, argued forcefully and at length. Finally, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question.  3The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them—much to everyone’s joy—that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.  4When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported on what God had been doing through their ministry.  5But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses.  6So the apostles and church elders got together to decide this question.  7At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe.  8God, who knows people’s hearts, confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he gave him to us.  9He made no distinction between us and them, for he also cleansed their hearts through faith.  10Why are you now questioning God’s way by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?  11We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the special favor of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 15:1-11, NLT)


Acts 15 is perhaps the most important chapter in the entire book of Acts because it highlights an important dispute that arose in the early church.

The issue wasn’t just about the rite of circumcision. At issue was what was necessary to be saved. The dispute seemed to be led by some Pharisees who had been converted (see verse 5). These men believed that salvation was for the Jews and therefore, they believed that the only way a Gentile could become saved was to convert to Judaism. This meant adopting Jewish customs, including observance of the law.

Circumcision was really an outward representation that a person had converted to Judaism. So when these men from Judea began teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, what they were really asserting was that Gentiles needed to become culturally Jewish before they could accept the Jewish Messiah.

So the question became: can Jesus save non-Jews, or do Gentiles need to adopt Jewish culture and become Jews before they can be saved by the Messiah?

Paul and Barnabas argued that Gentiles didn’t need to adopt Jewish customs, including circumcision, but only needed to receive Jesus by faith in order to be saved.

Peter also advocated for this position as he recalled his experience with Cornelius, the Roman centurion in Acts 10. Peter noted that Cornelius and his family, all Gentiles, had received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews had, on the basis of faith alone.

All of the church leaders agreed. The issue was settled, and from that point on, it was clear that the Jewish Messiah was not just for Jews but for all the peoples of the world. And more importantly, it was clear that the only requirement to receive the Jewish Messiah was faith. It was not necessary to become culturally Jewish.

There are important implications for us today as we seek to share Jesus with a dying world. The principle here is that we are to present Jesus to people and not our culture. Sometimes, it’s easy to conflate the two. People need Jesus. They don’t need my culturalized version of Jesus.

Reflection

In what ways has your culture influenced your view and understanding of Jesus? 

How can you ensure that when you share Jesus with others you are not taking a Pharisaical approach – injecting cultural requirements into the gospel message?

 

 

Saul’s Conversion and Confirmation Bias

17So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you may get your sight back and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19Afterward he ate some food and was strengthened. Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days. 20And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is indeed the Son of God!” 21All who heard him were amazed. “Isn’t this the same man who persecuted Jesus’ followers with such devastation in Jerusalem?” they asked. “And we understand that he came here to arrest them and take them in chains to the leading priests.” 22Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  (Acts 9:17-22)

Acts chapter 9 documents a pivotal turning point in the early church detailing the conversion of Saul, the great persecutor of the early church who then became its biggest advocate.

Immediately after his conversion, Paul began preaching the good news that Jesus “is indeed the Son of God.” In verse 22, it says that “the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.”

How was Paul able to so quickly go from being a staunch opponent of the faith to its greatest defender, baffling non-believers with his convincing arguments?

The truth is that Paul was already well versed in the Old Testament Scriptures and he knew all of the prophecies regarding the coming Messiah. And yet, he was blind to the information he already had at his disposal. His preconceptions and personal preferences regarding Jesus kept him from seeing the truth that was already evident.

While on the road to Damascus, Saul has an encounter with the risen Jesus and all of his biases and preconceived notions about who Jesus was are wiped away. Ironically, Paul’s encounter with Jesus results in physical blindness at the same time his eyes are finally opened spiritually. Later, Paul receives his sight back as Ananias laid his hands on him and “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes.”

We all have personal biases and preconceived ideas that keep us from seeing truth that may be evident to others. We call these blind spots. Additionally, many of us may feed our own biases by filtering out facts and evidence that might contradict our opinions and beliefs and considering only information that may support our preferred narrative. This is what’s known as confirmation bias.

Fortunately for Paul, he had a divine encounter with the truth that was so powerful it opened him up to his blindness and set him on a new trajectory. Because he had already been trained and schooled in the Old Testament Scriptures, he was able to quickly pivot his approach and immediately become the foremost apologist in the young New Testament church.

Reflection

In what areas might you be susceptible to blind spots?

What can you do to avoid confirmation bias?

How can you invite Jesus to expose you to truth that you might not be prone to see because it conflicts with your personal biases?